Grief Linked to Increased Heart Attack Risk

Carolyn Drake

The likelihood of having a heart attack increases dramatically in the first 24 hours after the death of a loved one and remains elevated for days and weeks afterward, researchers have found.

The likelihood of having a heart attack increases dramatically in the first 24 hours after the death of a loved one and remains elevated for days and weeks afterward, researchers have found.

The researchers gathered their data from interviews with 1,985 participants in the multicenter Determinants of MI Onset Study, who had been hospitalized for acute myocardial infarction (MI) between 1989 and 1994.

Among these patients, 270 (13.6%) reported that they had lost a loved one in the six months preceding their heart attack. Of these, 19 had lost their loved one within a day of their MI, indicating that heart attack risk is 21 times higher than usual in the first 24 hours following the death of a loved one.

This risk declined to just under six times normal by the end of the first week and continued to decline over the first month after the loved one’s death. The researchers also determined that the grief-related increase in heart attack risk was greater for those already at high risk of a heart attack than for those at low risk.

People tend to sleep and eat less at the beginning of the grieving process and some may fail to take their regular medications, all of which may help explain their increased heart attack risk, notes a press release.

“Friends and family of bereaved people should provide close support to help prevent such incidents, especially near the beginning of the grieving process,” said Elizabeth Mostofsky, MPH, of Harvard Medical School, the study’s lead author.

This study was published online earlier this week by Circulation.