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MONDAY, Feb. 24, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- It's often said that the loss of a spouse or partner leaves "a broken heart." That notion might have some scientific validity, with new evidence suggesting the risk for a heart attack or stroke goes up during the first few weeks of bereavement.
Bereavement has long been known as a risk factor for death. Prior work has suggested that grief has a direct negative impact on blood clotting risk, blood pressure, stress hormone levels and heart rate control, said Shah, a senior lecturer in public health at St. George's University of London in England.
But citing a lack of sufficient information on the specific impact of bereavement on heart disease, Shah and his colleagues examined thousands of heart health histories contained in a large British primary care database.
The team focused on information concerning nearly 30,500 British men and women between 60 and 89 years old, all of whom had lost a partner between 2005 and 2012. They also looked at the histories of about 83,600 similarly aged men and women who had not lost a partner in that time frame.
The researchers found that in the month following a partner's death, the incidence of fatal or non-fatal heart attack and stroke was roughly double among men and women in the bereavement group, compared with those in the non-bereavement group. The numbers were relatively small, however -- 50 heart attacks or strokes among the bereaved group, versus 67 for the non-bereaved group.
The finding held up whether looking at the combined risk for heart attack and stroke, or at individual risk for just one or the other, the researchers said.
"We think it is important that doctors, friends and family are aware of this increased risk of heart attacks and strokes so they can ensure care and support is as good as possible at a time of increased vulnerability before and after loss of a loved one," Shah added.
However, the cardiovascular gap observed between the two groups started to narrow significantly after the first 30 days. When the study authors compared heart status at the 90-day mark and again one year out, the two groups were found to face more or less comparable risk.
The study authors concluded that their findings reinforce the notion of a psychological-physiological dimension to cardiovascular risk.
The findings appear in the Feb. 24 online issue of JAMA Internal Medicine.
A cardiovascular disease specialist not involved with the study suggested the findings are yet more proof of a "very powerful link" between mind and body.
"Most people are somewhat aware that stress can have a physiological effect," said Dr. Martha Grogan, a consultant with the Division of Cardiovascular Diseases at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "But what's important to realize is that there is a real impact on the body."
Researchers aren't sure exactly what lies behind the link. "But we think it has something to do with how emotional factors cause arterial instability, by increasing the risk that the plaque we all have to some degree will start to block the arteries," Grogan said.
For most people, the emotional toll of bereavement will eventually pass, she said. But while you're struggling with grief or experiencing long-term chronic stress from another source, she suggested looking for ways to relieve your burden.
You might try exercising or reaching out for the emotional support of others, she said.
"The way we handle our stress clearly can have an impact on our health," Grogan added.
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SOURCES: Sunil Shah, B.Sc., M.B.B.S., M.Sc., F.F.P.H., senior lecturer in public health, Population Health Research Institute, St. George's University of London, London, England; Martha Grogan, M.D., consultant in cardiovascular disease, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.; Feb. 24, 2014, online, JAMA Internal Medicine