The Health Risks of a Broken Heart

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A broken heart may be more than just a metaphor for emotional pain. A British analysis of a database of more than 30,000 people, appearing in the April 2014 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, examined the link between bereavement and acute cardiovascular events, such as heart attack and stroke, in adults 60 and older.

Comparing people who had lost a spouse or a partner with a control group of those who suffered no losses, researchers found that bereaved patients were more than twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke than their non-grieving counterparts in the first 30 days after the loss, after which the risk diminished.

Theories about why are varied. It could be that acute grief leads to short-term changes in blood pressure and cortisol levels or that grieving people neglect their health.

The study supports previous research, including a 2012 study in Circulation that found the risk of a heart attack increased more than 21 times during the first 24 hours following a loved one’s death.

In that study, the risk was highest among those with heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.