Can You Really Die of a Broken Heart?

The idea that dying of a broken heart is merely the stuff of legend, has been proven false. A study by researchers at St. George’s University of London has shown that the chances of a heart attack or stroke doubles during a crucial 30-day period following a spouse’s death. The loss of a loved one is the number one stressful life event on the Holmes-Rahe scale and without a doubt, its effects are far more than psychological. Grief has measurable physical effects, but it also leads some people to forget to take life-saving medication. It is vital for those who are grieving to be aware of the link between significant loss and serious health conditions, so they can take steps to improve their health and wellbeing.

What Changes Occur during Bereavement?

Researcher, Dr. Sunil Shah, noted that the effects of bereavement include “changes in blood clotting, blood pressure, stress hormone levels, and heart rate control.” Meanwhile, a failure to take life-saving medication such as statins or cholesterol lowering medication, can contribute to major negative health effects. Therefore, noted Shah, it is vital for both healthcare workers and family and friends to guard against the effects of grief by taking a proactive approach to stress.

When Grief Becomes Persistent

Grieving is a normal, healthy process that involves entering (and revisiting) several stages, as per Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stage of Grief Model. The latter envisions a cycle which can last several months or even longer, comprising the following stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. When a loved one passes away, we normally experience acute grief for the first six to 12 months; when grief lasts longer than a year, it is classified as persistent grief, which requires help of a therapist or counselor. Doctors should explain to patients who are grieving that chronic stress can lead to a host of health conditions, including anxiety, depression, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Steps to Take

It is vital to tackle stress actively rather than passively. Research indicates that we can guard against its ill effects through a multifaceted approach which includes a sound Mediterranean-style diet, regular exercise, and mindfulness-based practises such as Tai Chi, Qi Gong, yoga, or meditation. Many studies have been carried out on mindfulness; results consistently show it has a powerful ability to lower stress hormone (cortisol) levels, boost mood, and improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. Making quality sleep a priority and reaching out to one’s social circle are also key.

Leaning on others, making healthy lifestyle choices, and being extra vigilant when it comes to taking medication are key when human beings are grieving. Because there is a significant link between loss of a loved one and serious events such as heart attack and stroke, it is key to be on the lookout for signs of stress, anxiety, and depression. If grief is persistent, therapy should be considered in order to help those in need to learn healthier coping behaviors.

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