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Broken hearts are real, and these researchers measured the risk

Broken hearts really do happen and researchers in Denmark know just how often that is.
/ Source: NBC News

The scene is almost a cliché — a middle-aged man dies of an unexpected heart attack, and his grieving widow ends up in the hospital herself within a week.

It turns out it’s also a realistic picture of precisely what can happen when you lose a loved one.

“The elevated risk was especially high for those who were young and those who lost a relatively healthy partner,” Dr. Simon Graff of Aarhus University in Denmark and colleagues wrote in the journal Open Heart.

The Danish researchers say the risk is the worst about a week to two after an unexpected loss, and stays at least a little bit high for a year. Overall, people who have had a sudden loss have a 41 percent higher risk of atrial fibrillation, but the risk is close to double the first two weeks after someone dies.

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The Danish team measured one well-known effect of sudden loss or shock — a type of irregular heart beat called atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation can cause a stroke or heart failure.

They used Denmark’s detailed medical records system, which keeps track of every health visit. They found 88,000 people who were diagnosed with atrial fibrillation for the first time between 1995 and 2014. Then they compared their circumstances to more than 880,000 healthy people of the same age and circumstances.

Just about 19 percent of both groups lost a spouse or partner over that time. And many people in both groups also developed atrial fibrillation. But it was more likely to happen to someone who just lost a partner — especially if it was something unexpected.

The researchers were able to see what had happened, whether a partner had died of something like AIDS, or a sudden heart attack. Long-lasting illnesses were less likely to send the survivor to the hospital.

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“A long-lasting disease with great suffering and considerable care may be stressful and place high demands on the partner, and death may sometimes even be a relief,” the team wrote.

Last year, researchers reported about a known medical condition that causes the heart to go off-beat after a shock or loss, called takotsubo cardiomyopathy or stress cardiomyopathy.

They found blood pressure-lowering drugs such as beta-blockers didn't help prevent the condition, but another class of drugs called ACE inhibitors did.

Cyndy Bizon had it happen to her in 2005. The Portland, Maine resident found herself in the emergency room after her husband, Joel, suffered a heart attack during routine surgery.

"I remember feeling dizzy... and trying to grab the counter. I remember a curtain of black that I couldn't shake away coming down,” Cyndy told NBC News in 2012. Luckily, both Cyndy and Joel survived.