The risk of heart attack goes way up in the hours and days after the death of a loved on, according to new research.
Researchers surveyed almost 2,000 heart attack survivors and asked whether someone close to them had died in the six months before their heart attack.
"We found that the risk of having a heart attack was 21 times higher in the day following the loss of a loved one, compared to other times," says Elizabeth Mostofsky of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who led the study. "And that risk remained elevated during subsequent days and weeks."
According to Mostofsky, previous research looked at the risk of dying from any cause over a year or more after the death of a spouse or a child, not including other close family and friends, and her team focused on data from the days immediately after getting the news.
She says several things could explain why the intense feelings after the death of a loved one could trigger a heart attack.
"Grief causes feelings of depression, anger, and anxiety, and several studies have shown that these emotions can cause increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, and blood clotting," she says. "And those, in turn, can increase the chances of having a heart attack."
Mostofsky says the key message of her study is that the family and friends of people who are grieving for a loved one, especially one who has died in recent days, should be aware of the increased risk of heart attack.
"People should be making sure that the bereaved person is taking care of himself or herself, including taking their regular medications, because they are at that heightened level of vulnerability at this time in their life."
Mostofsky, whose research is published in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation, adds that if a grieving person develops symptoms of a possible heart attack, that should not just be chalked up to going through a stressful time. It may actually be a heart attack.