Studies show 'broken hearts' really happen

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

We've all seen it from time to time, long-time couples where one passes away shortly after another.

"She died of a broken heart," we'll say, or "he didn't want to go on without her."

Now there's growing scientific evidence that one can, indeed, die of a broken heart.

In fact, the study found that the death of a loved one makes you up to 21 times more likely to suffer a heart attack within a day of your loss, and you are six times more likely to have a heart attack during the first week of bereavement.

Researchers studied almost 2,000 heart attack survivors, reviewing health charts and conducting interviews of 1,985 patients while they were hospitalized after a confirmed heart attack between 1989 and 1994.

They found the increased risk of a heart attack within the first week after the loss of a significant other ranged from one per 320 people who were at high risk, to one per 1,394 people with a low risk of heart attack.

Experts say such intense grief can increase heart rate, blood pressure and blood clotting, which can immediately increase the chances of a heart attack. Over a longer term, the loss of sleep and appetite can depress the immune system, aggravating underlying medical issues.

While the latest study is more likely to affect men, an earlier study found that healthy women sometimes have heart failure after the death of a spouse, even if there are no blockages or other traditional heart attack causes.

Medical centers in Minnesota and Baltimore have documented cases where heart failure is triggered by acute emotional or physical trauma that releases a surge of adrenaline that overwhelms the heart.

That "freezes" much of the left ventricle, the heart's main pumping chamber, disrupting its ability to contract and effectively pump blood.

Called "concussion" of the heart, it mostly affects women after menopause. However, because it is not caused by an obstruction like a normal heart attack, little heart muscle is lost and recovery can be complete.

Most of us don't need a scientific study to persuade us that friends and family need special attention when they experience a major loss.

We need to make sure they aren't left alone, and that they eat well, take any prescribed medications and receive all the support they need.

And, if we find ourselves in their position, we need to be willing to accept all the help that is offered.

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