Symptoms of a broken heart: death of a loved one raises risk of irregular heartbeat

    6 April 2016

    Bereavement really can cause problems for the heart, raising the risk of an irregular heartbeat for a year, according to new research.

    The study, published in the journal Open Heart, reports that the risk of atrial fibrillation is greatest between eight and 14 days after the loss of a loved one, and declines to normal levels after a year.

    The researchers looked at data from almost 80,000 people diagnosed with the condition, and discovered that almost a fifth of them had lost their partner. They believe the risk of developing the condition, which increases the likelihood of stroke and heart failure, is 41 per cent higher in those recently bereaved.

    They also say the risk is greater still in young people who experience an unexpected loss — those under 60 are twice as susceptible.

    The researchers wrote: ‘The loss of a partner is considered one of the most severely stressful life events and is likely to affect most people, independently of coping mechanisms.

    ‘In this large population-based study, the severely stressful life event of losing a partner was associated with a transiently increased risk of atrial fibrillation, which lasted for about one year.

    ‘The elevated risk was especially high for those who were young and those who lost a relatively healthy partner,’ the scientists wrote.

    ‘Bereavement is a major life event, which is known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, mental illness and death.’

    Instant analysis
    I have been in practice long enough now to know that it really does seem possible to die of a broken heart — many studies do appear to show that severe stress is linked with an increased risk of problems such as heart attacks. However, what is less clear is whether such severe stress as typically occurs following the death of a partner may also trigger irregularities with the heart pacemaker system, and so cause problems such as atrial fibrillation.

    This large and significant population-based, case-control Danish study now suggests it does. Once confounding factors have been removed, the conclusion reached is that the severe stress of losing a partner does appear to increase the risk of an irregular heart beat — atrial fibrillation — developing. This in turn increases the risk of serious problems such as stroke. However, this effect appears to settle after a year, but interestingly seems to be more pronounced for unexpected deaths, or the least predicted losses.

    This is an important study in that when patients are seen during a grieving process, doctors should also now be taking the opportunity to quickly check that their cardiac status has not altered, especially if the bereavement has been unexpected. RH
    Research score: 4/5