Health

Broken hearts: Strokes, heart attacks more likely after loss

Feb. 24, 2014 at 5:04 PM ET

Heartache can quickly turn into heartbreak after the loss of a loved one — quite literally.

A study of seniors found the risk of heart attack jumped twofold in the 30 days following the loss of a partner. Stroke risk rose 2.4 times over that of similarly aged people who had not sustained a loss, according to the study of more than 100,000 seniors published Monday in JAMA.

"There is evidence from other studies that bereavement and grief lead to a range of adverse physiological responses, including changes in blood clotting, blood pressure, stress hormone levels and heart rate control," said study co-author Dr. Sunil Shah, a senior lecturer in public health at St. George's University of London. "All of these will plausibly contribute to an increased risk of events such as heart attacks and stroke after loss of a partner."

Shah and his colleagues compared 30,447 bereaved patients to 83,588 who were matched in age and gender and but had not lost a partner. The risk of heart attack and stroke was highest in the month after the loss and fell off to normal during the year.

No one knows exactly why the risk of death rises so dramatically, said Dr. Karol Watson, co-director of preventive cardiology at UCLA.

"But there are a lot of good theories," she added. "Many studies have shown that intense stress can activate the fight or flight response, which can cause a surge of epinephrine, adrenaline and cortisol. And that can cause stun damage to your heart."

Grief also tends to wreak havoc with people's daily schedules which can "cause them to forget their medications, stop eating right — or do harmful things like drinking or eating too much," Watson said. "Those changes can increase the risk of heart attack."

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