Recent bereavement greatly increases heart attack risk

A new study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers and their colleagues finds that the death of a loved one greatly increases the risk of having a heart attack. Researchers found that bereaved individuals were 21 times more likely to have a heart attack within the first day following the death of a significant person in their lives, and still carried a six-fold higher risk during the first week. The elevated risk decreased after about a month.

The study appeared online in the journal Circulation on January 10, 2012. Read abstract

The authors, including Elizabeth Mostofsky and Murray Mittleman, both affiliated with the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, studied nearly 2,000 recent heart attack patients. They compared the number of loved ones the patient had lost during the past year to the number lost during the most recent day and week prior to the heart attack. The researchers adjusted for independent risk factors such as family medical history.

“People who have a heart attack are more likely to have lost a person in the recent past than would have been expected based on the number they lost over the past six months to a year,” Mostofsky told Time.

Grief can put an extra strain on the heart, according to the researchers. The recently bereaved may also compound their risk by neglecting to take medications or abandoning behaviors such as healthy eating and exercise.

“During situations of extreme grief and psychological distress, you still need to take care of yourself and seek medical attention for symptoms associated with a heart attack,” Mittleman told the BBC.

Read Time and BBC articles.

Read Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center press release

Learn more

Heart Disease: The Impact of Genetics, Stress, and Lifestyle (Harvard Public Health Review)