People really can die of a broken heart after the death of a loved one, a new study suggests.
Researchers from Rice University, in Houston, Texas, conducted interviews and examined the blood of 99 people who spouses had recently died and found widows and widowers had an increased risk of potentially fatal health outcomes following emotional distress.
The study could shine further light on why elderly couples often die within a short time of each other, but the researchers said the data could also be used to help those most in need.
The researchers compared the blood of people who showed symptoms of elevated grief – such as pining for the deceased, difficulty moving on, a sense that life is meaningless and an inability to accept the reality of the loss – to those who did not exhibit those behaviours.
They discovered that widows and widowers with elevated grief symptoms suffered up to 17 per cent higher levels of bodily inflammation. And people in the top one-third of that group had a 53.4 per cent higher level of inflammation than the bottom one-third of the group who did exhibit those symptoms.
“Previous research has shown that inflammation contributes to almost every disease in older adulthood,” the study’s lead author Chris Fagundes said.
“We also know that depression is linked to higher levels of inflammation, and those who lose a spouse are at considerably higher risk of major depression, heart attack, stroke and premature mortality. However, this is the first study to confirm that grief — regardless of people’s levels of depressive symptoms — can promote inflammation, which in turn can cause negative health outcomes.”
Crucially, the study suggests who among the bereaved may be at highest risk of negative health outcomes, Fagundes added. “Now that we know these two key findings, we can design interventions to target this risk factor in those who are most at risk through behavioural or pharmacological approaches,” he said.
Researchers have previously coined the term “broken heart syndrome” to colloquially refer to Takotsubo syndromem which has symptoms similar to a heart attack and can be triggered by severe emotional distress. The British Heart Foundation has called for urgent “new and more effective treatments for this devastating condition”.