Grieving Your Way to a Heart Attack?

Heart attack risk increases after losing a loved one

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The pain may be unbearable after losing a loved one. It also may be dangerous to your health. During the initial days after a close loved one dies, your risk of a heart attack is increased significantly.

One day after the loss of a close loved one, the risk of a heart attack is increased 21-fold, and within the first week the risk remains six times higher than normal. The risk steadily declines over the first month after the loss.

"Don't neglect your own health, speak with a doctor or therapist."

Dr. Murray Mittleman, a preventive cardiologist and epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and School of Public Health’s epidemiology department, said that healthcare providers, caretakers and grieving individuals need to recognize the period of heightened risk in the days and weeks after losing a loved one.

Intense grief that brings on psychological stress can increase the risk of a heart attack by raising heart rate, blood pressure and blood clotting. Less sleep, lower appetite and higher cortisol levels, which are common when someone is grieving, also may increase heart attack risk.

Those who have lost someone they were close to also may neglect to take regular medications.

During the study researchers followed 1,985 adult heart attack survivors. As part of the multi-center Determinants of MI Onset Study, investigators reviewed the charts of the participants and interviewed them while they were hospitalized following a heart attack between 1989 and 1994.

Patients were asked about whether they had lost someone they were close to in the last year, when the death happened and the significance of that relationship.

The risk of heart attack was calculated by comparing the number of patients who had a loved one die the week before their heart attack to the number of significant individuals who died one month to six months before the heart attack.

During the first week after the loss of a loved one, heart attack risk ranges from one per 320 people with a high heart attack risk to one per 1,394 people with a low heart attack risk. Bereaved spouses appear to have a higher long-term risk of dying. Previous research suggests up to 53 percent die from heart disease or stroke.

Dr. Mittleman is urging awareness, but is not yet making a recommendation to help lower the risk. He said additional studies will be needed to offer specific recommendations.

The study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, was published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 9, 2012
Last Updated:
January 11, 2012