SUNDAY, Nov. 14, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- In the months following the death of a spouse or a child, the surviving spouse or parent may face a higher risk of heart attack or sudden cardiac death due to an increased heart rate, new research suggests.
The risk tends to dissipate within six months, the study authors said.
"While the focus at the time of bereavement is naturally directed toward the deceased person, the health and welfare of bereaved survivors should also be of concern to medical professionals, as well as family and friends," study lead author Thomas Buckley, acting director of postgraduate studies at the University of Sydney Nursing School in Sydney, Australia, said in an American Heart Association news release.
"Some bereaved," he added, "especially those already at increased cardiovascular risk, might benefit from medical review, and they should seek medical assistance for any possible cardiac symptoms."
Buckley and his colleagues are scheduled to present their observations Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association, in Chicago.
While prior research has indicated that heart health may be compromised among the bereaved, it has remained unclear what exactly drives this increased risk and why the risk diminishes over time. The new study suggests that there is a psychological dimension to the dynamic, one centered around a temporary increase in the incidence of stress and depression.
The study authors examined the issue by tracking 78 bereaved spouses and parents between the ages of 33 and 91 (55 women and 23 men) for six months, starting within the two-week period following the loss of their child or spouse.
Heart rates and rhythmic irregularities were tracked with 24-hour monitors, while fluctuations in the onset of depression and anxiety were documented. The findings were then compared with the medical conditions of a group of men and women who had not experienced the loss of a loved one.
Buckley and his associates found that, compared with the non-grieving group, bereaved patients experienced twice the number of rapid heartbeat episodes in the weeks immediately following their loss. Average heart rates were also relatively higher among bereaved patients during the same time frame.
By six months after the loss of a loved one, both conditions reverted back to normal among the bereaved, so they were either comparable or even less problematic compared with the non-grieving group, the investigators found.
Meanwhile, depression levels initially appeared to be more than four times higher among the bereaved. These rates started to decline after half a year, but they were still three times higher than levels found among the non-grieving participants.
"While our findings do not establish causality, they are consistent with evidence for psychosocial triggering of cardiovascular events," said Buckley. "They suggest the need for further investigation of the link between bereavement and cardiovascular risk, including the potential for preventive measures."
Experts note that research presented at meetings is not subjected to the same level of scrutiny as research published in leading journals.
For more on coping with the loss of a loved one, visit the American Cancer Society.