COPENHAGEN, Denmark, Tuesday April 12, 2016 – The loss of your nearest and dearest could literally break your heart, a new Danish study suggests.
The findings of the research indicate that people are more likely to develop an irregular heartbeat following the death of their spouse or life partner, particularly in younger couples or in the case of unexpected death.
The researchers reported that the risk of atrial fibrillation (a fluttering or irregular heartbeat that can cause stroke and heart disease) was 41 percent higher among those mourning the death of a partner, compared to others who were not bereaved.
Those younger than 60 who lost their partner were more than twice as likely to develop atrial fibrillation, moreover, while those whose partners were relatively healthy in the month preceding their death were 57 percent more likely to develop atrial fibrillation.
The increased risk was not seen in people whose partners were ailing and expected to die soon, suggesting that sudden or unexpected death contributed to the impact on the surviving partner’s health.
In the study, which was published earlier this month in the journal Open Heart, researchers compared more than 88,600 Danes newly diagnosed with atrial fibrillation with 886,120 healthy people, matched for age and sex, between 1995 and 2014.
Those who lost their nearest and dearest were not only at greater risk for an abnormal heart rhythm, but the risk was independent of gender and other conditions that might contribute to the disorder, the researchers said.
The risk appeared greatest eight to 14 days after a death, gradually subsiding subsequently. After a year the risk was similar to that of someone who had not been bereaved, according to the researchers.
The research team noted that because this was an observational study, it could not draw a direct cause-and-effect link between the death of a partner and atrial fibrillation.
The study nevertheless reinforced earlier research that suggested a link between heart rhythm problems and emotional turmoil, according to Dr Mark Estes, director of the New England Cardiac Arrhythmia Center at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
“Many patients describe that their atrial fibrillation gets worse at a time of emotional stress,” Estes said. “This really validates prior observations. It’s something we hear from our patients all the time.”
Dr Suraj Kapa, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist in Rochester, Minnesota, agreed, noting that stress and powerful emotions are known to flood the body with “fight or flight” hormones that can take a toll on the heart.
Dr Suzanne Steinbaum, director of Women’s Heart Health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, noted that the study shows why people who’ve suffered a tragic death in their lives need the support of family and friends.
“We use that phrase ‘broken heart’ as though it’s a colloquialism, but there’s a reality to it,” Dr Steinbaum said.
“The most important thing is having a support system, especially in the event of a sudden, unexpected death. It’s so important that people get the support they need.”