How Grief Can Break Your Heart

Losing a loved one can be mentally and physically traumatic for anyone, and a study shows that the loss can increase the risk of having a heart attack by 21-fold

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Grief is a powerful emotion, and the latest research shows just how damaging it can be, especially for the heart.

The sobering results, appearing in the journal Circulation, are the first to compare how grief affects an individual’s heart-disease risk within a period of time. Previous studies have documented that people losing loved ones tend to have more heart problems than those who aren’t bereaved. In the current analysis, lead author Elizabeth Mostofsky and her colleagues took a unique approach by calculating an individual’s “average loss” of loved ones over a year, by asking how many people study participants had lost in the past year and comparing that figure to the number of loved ones that same person lost during the study period in question, which included the most recent day and week preceding a heart attack. Because all the participants were heart-attack patients, that allowed her to calculate the effect that losing a loved one had on each individual’s heart-attack risk.

“We compared these patients’ losses in the recent past of the last day or week before their heart attack to the loss we would have expected to see based on their loss [pattern] over the past six months,” says Mostofsky. “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.”

That’s not really surprising, but the extent of grief’s effect on the heart was more eye opening. Losing someone raises the risk of having a heart attack the next day by 21-fold, and the risk of a heart attack in the following week by six times. The apparently broken hearts showed signs of mending after about a month, when risk of heart attacks started to decline.

Because her group relied on the patients’ own histories of loss, Mostofsky says they were able to adjust for possible confounding factors such as independent risks for heart disease and family history of heart events. “All of the other studies that have been done have compared people who lost someone to other people who did not lose someone. We’re comparing risks within the same person, in a self-matched analysis,” she says. “We’re comparing your risk following a loss compared to your risk at other times in your life.”

The findings only heighten the need to better understand the myriad ways that grief can affect the body and mind, from changing blood pressure to altering blood-vessel chemistry so clots are more likely to both form and rupture, leading to a heart attack. The emotional distress from a loss can also cause the bereaved to change their lifestyle and either stop taking medications that help their heart or give up on behaviors such as exercising and eating a healthy diet that can keep them healthy as well.

The study wasn’t able to document whether losing someone particularly close to you has more or less of an impact on heart-attack risk; the participants were asked only if they had lost a “significant person” in their lives, which could include anyone from a friendly neighbor to a mother, father, son or daughter. Mostofsky says she is planning on studying this effect as well, to better understand how both the medical and social communities can improve the way we support the bereaved to lower their risk of suffering from a truly broken heart.