Grief Can Increase Your Heart Attack Risk

by Dr. Stephen Sinatra
Filed Under: Heart Health, Heart Attack
Last Reviewed 04/16/2014

There are many painfully tragic things I’ve seen in my days as a hospital cardiologist, but one of the saddest is the death of a surviving spouse following the loss of their mate.

Now, a study by Harvard Medical School researchers shows there’s a 21-fold increase in heart attacks within the first 24 hours of bereavement than at other times. They also noted that those at highest cardiovascular risk are the most vulnerable to profound grief.

This study reconfirms earlier research that identified a heightened risk for mortality in the days, months, and years after the loss of a loved one—with cardiovascular disease as the prime culprit. In fact, heart issues were responsible for a 20 to 53 percent increased risk in mortality after the loss of a spouse.

Why does bereavement increase the risk of cardiac events? It’s because losing a loved one can cause your heart rate to skyrocket and blood pressure to rise, as well as clotting factors. Plus, intense grief has other effects over time, including raising levels of the stress hormone cortisol, a loss in appetite, and less interest in self care which can cause people to skip their regularly prescribed drugs.

If you know someone who is grieving:

  • Empathize: Reach out with phone calls, cards, and invitations to join you in activities 
  • Invest: When you spend time with someone in grief, be willing to listen to them tell their story. If you are moved to tears, then show your own emotions. Shedding a sincere tear can shows that you relate to the pain of loss.
  • Touch: a simple hand on a shoulder or honest hug connects beyond words
  • Support: Encourage recall of the happy times with a lost spouse or loved one; keep them alive in your conversations by referring to them on occasions where it feels appropriate like seeing a movie they would have enjoyed
  • Resource: Suggest pastoral care for anyone who feels really “stuck”

If you are grieving:

  • Cry: There is nothing more healing for the heart. It is NOT a sign of weakness, even for us men.
  • Engage: Try your best to respond to social support offered by others, even when you feel like withdrawing. Name a time that does work for you.
  • Reach out: Should you need a grief support group in your area, but lack the initiative to find one, ask a family member or friend to help you search or even go with you the first time
  • Consider Rx help:  Medical intervention can help if coping seems overwhelming. You may need short term intervention with beta blockers, aspirin, and/or antidepressant medication if you are at high risk for CVD
  • Moving forward: Ruminating about your loss is understandable when it’s just happened, but if it persists for weeks and months, consider talking with a professional in grief counseling. 
  • Find purpose: It may be hard to go on with your own life. Focusing on the needs of others can help. Consider helping a friend, or volunteering your time.
  • Express yourself:  Paint or dance your emotions. Art forms can be an outlet to express your grief if you are so inclined; consider an art or dance class.

The take-home message is that family members and healthcare providers need be aware of the risk of heart attack during the bereavement period, and do all they can to help.

Now it’s your turn: Do you have any bereavement tips to share?

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