The severe psychological stress of a lost partner may lead to a heightened risk of cardiovascular problems, including irregular heartbeats that last for a year. The risk is even higher for young people who experience an unexpected loss. The findings were published this week in the BMJ journal Open Heart.
Stressful life events are well documented to cause increased risk of acute cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attack. Nevertheless, it’s unclear whether they also lead to arrhythmia, or problems with heartbeat rate. In the case of arrhythmia, the heart might beat too fast, too slow, or irregularly – all risk factors for stroke and heart failure.
A team led by Simon Graff of Aarhus University, Denmark used data from the Danish National Patient Register to identify 88,612 cases with a hospital diagnosis of atrial fibrillation between 1995 and 2014. They also randomly selected 10 controls that matched the age and sex of each subject, for a total of 886,120 controls.
Partner mourning was experienced in 17,478 cases and 168,940 controls, and it was linked with a temporary higher risk of atrial fibrillation, the most common type of arrhythmia. The risk was more pronounced for people under the age of 60 and people whose partner was relatively healthy before their passing. The risk was highest 8 to 14 days after the loss, and it gradually subsided afterwards. After a year, the risk subsided to the same one as that in the non-bereaved population.
“The bereavement of a partner is a devastating event in anyone’s life but the effect can be even worse when a death is sudden or premature,” Maureen Talbot of the British Heart Foundation said in a statement. “Our research has shown how emotional stress can have an adverse effect on the heart but this study also highlights a significant physical effect – a greater risk of developing atrial fibrillation when recently bereaved.”
Though underlying illnesses like cardiovascular disease and diabetes were more common among those newly diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, the risk of developing arrhythmia for the first time was 41% higher in bereaved subjects suffering from a sudden loss. This further demonstrates that we are social beings and invest ourselves deeply in our relations.