Heart attack after bereavement

Frances Weston speaks on BBC Radio Derby about findings of BIDMC-led study into increased risk of heart attack following bereavement

Following publication yesterday of the findings of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s research into the into the links between bereavement and subsequent risk of heart attack, I was interviewed by Phil Trow on BBC Radio Derby this morning, in my capacity as a bereavement counsellor.

The study found that a person’s risk of experiencing a heart attack was approximately 21 times greater within the first 24 hours of the death of a loved one, with the risk remaining 8 times higher in the first week, and remaining high for a further month.  These findings were based on interviews with 2,000 patients who suffered a heart attack over a five year period.

You can listen to the interview here It appears 35 minutes and 40 seconds into the breakfast show.

Lead author Elizabeth Mostofsky, MPH, ScD, said “Bereavement and grief are associated with increased feelings of depression, anxiety and anger, and those have been shown to be associated with increases in heart rate and blood pressure, and changes in the blood that make it more likely to clot, all of which can lead to a heart attack”.

Whilst the risk is much higher in people who have pre-existing heart problems, “broken heart syndrome” – caused when a traumatising incident triggers the brain to distribute chemicals that weaken heart tissue – can occur in previously healthy individuals.

Even animals can experience this reaction to the stress of a loss: you may have heard the moving story of Army dog handler Liam Tasker’s dog dying from a heart attack within a few hours of Liam’s fatal shooting in Afghanistan in March 2011.

At times of extreme emotional stress like a bereavement, our health is likely to suffer further due to factors such as lack of sleep; loss of appetite (or reliance on more ‘junk’ food than usual); perhaps smoking and/or drinking too much; lack of exercise; loss of interest in social activities and so on. 

So, if you – or someone you know – has recently been bereaved, what can be done to reduce the risks?

  • Encourage a recently bereaved person to talk about how they feel, initially with friends and family, to enable them to process the events surrounding the bereavement, and reduce the sense of shock.  If a person is still struggling to come to terms with their loss weeks/months afterwards, then suggest they see a counsellor experienced in grief work. There are lots of private counsellors who offer this service, as well as voluntary agencies such as Cruse Bereavement Care
  • Help out with healthy eating by offering to do a food shop for them, or cooking them a meal now and then.  Often when we feel really low the effort of shopping and cooking can seem overwhelming, but if someone puts a meal in front of us, we can usually manage to eat.
  • If the person is already suffering from heart problems, ensure they visit their GP for a check-up, and encourage them to take any medication they may be on (its easy to forget when under extreme psychological stress)
  • Encourage social activity so a bereaved person does not become too isolated.  Even ringing regularly for a brief chat can make a big difference.  It is normal for a bereaved person not to feel like facing much social contact, and people can avoid them for fear of saying the wrong thing, but company is good for someone experiencing grief – especially if they live alone.
  • Encourage the person to take a little light exercise regularly and, if possible, join them in the activity – its always easier to maintain regular exercise with some support from someone else.
  • Enlisiting help with all the above from other relatives, friends or colleagues – perhaps by way of a rota- can lighten the load and take the pressure off anyone trying to care for a bereaved person on their own.

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