Losing a loved one can be extremely difficult for all involved, although a new study has detailed just how serious a broken heart can be.
Research published by Rice University in the Psychoneuroendocrinology Journal has found that grief can cause inflammation that can kill. The study, which analysed the impact grief has on human health, built on previous studies which have examined the risk factors of inflammation.
For the “Grief, Depressive Symptoms and Inflammation in the Spousally Bereaved” study, researchers conducted interviews and analysed blood samples of 99 people whose partners had recently passed away. Participants included in the study showed a variety of symptoms of elevated grief including pining for their loved one who passed away, difficulty moving on, a sense that life had become meaningless and trouble accepting the reality of loss. Some in the study didn’t exhibit any of these behaviours.
Researchers discovered widows and widowers with elevated grief symptoms experienced up to 17 per cent higher levels of bodily inflammation. Worryingly, those in the top third of the group had a 53.4 per cent higher level of inflammation than people in the bottom one-third of the group, who also exhibited inflammation.
“Previous research has shown that inflammation contributes to almost every disease in older adulthood,” lead author Chris Fagundes said in a statement. “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.”
The study is the first in the world to confirm that grief – regardless of a person’s level of depressive symptoms – can promote inflammation. It is one of many studies that have investigated how bereavement can impact health and ow different human behaviours and activities increase inflammation levels in the body. Fagundes’ previous work studied how widowed people are at increased risk of cardiovascular issues, bodily symptoms and premature death by comparing inflammation in those grieving the loss of a partner to matched controls.
“This work shows who, among those who are bereaved, are at highest risk,” he added. “Now that we know these key findings, we can design interventions to target this risk factor in those who are most at risk through behavioural or pharmacological approaches.”
The latest findings come several months after research published in the Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics Journal claimed taking two aspirin pills following the death of a loved one can decrease the chance of experiencing heart complications associated with grief.
The risk of a heart attack can increase 21.1-fold in the 24 hours following the passing of a loved one, although aspirin can lower the levels of risk factors linked with heart attack and help people recover physically from loss quicker. That study found bereavement can increase blood pressure and cause heart rate to rise rapidly, while blood vessels can become restricted and cholesterol plaque can build up in the blood.
The American Heart Association also acknowledges that a broken heart is a real health diagnosis. Although temporary, grieving can impact even the healthiest of people, while women are more likely than men to experience it. Most sufferers experience a tight and intense pain in the chest.