People really can die of a broken heart – because grief triggers inflammation, according to new research.
A study of almost 100 recently widowed people found those taking it worst had dramatic spikes in blood chemicals linked to the killer condition.
It sheds light on the worldwide phenomenon of longtime couples dying within a short time of each other.
One team at the University of Glasgow followed 4,000 couples and found spouses were about a third more likely to expire within six months of their partner. Another Israeli group found the risk soared 50 percent.
Now US psychologists have identified the cause of these poignant deaths dubbed ‘broken heart syndrome’ for the first time – inflammation.
It could lead to screening bereaved people to identify those most at risk so they can be offered counselling or drugs.
The immune reaction is behind every life threatening disease from heart attacks and stroke to cancer, diabes and dementia.
Lead author professor Chris Fagundes, of Rice University, Houston, said: “Previous research has shown that inflammation contributes to almost every disease in older adulthood.
“We also know 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.
“However, this is the first study to confirm that grief – regardless of people’s levels of depressive symptoms – can promote inflammation, which in turn can cause negative health outcomes.”
The study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, is the most thorough examination of the impact of grief on human health to date.
Building on previous research at Prof Fagundes’ lab into risk factors for inflammation, it interviewed 99 people whose spouses had recently died.
They were split into two groups – one that pined, had difficulty moving on, felt life was meaningless and were unable to accept the loss and the other with none of these .
Blood samples showed widows and widowers with elevated grief symptoms suffered up to 17 percent higher levels of bodily inflammation.
And people in the top one-third of that group had a 53.4 per cent higher level of inflammation than the bottom one-third of the group who did exhibit those symptoms.
Prof Fagundes said the finding is an important revelation in the study of how human behaviours and activities impact inflammation levels in the body.
It also adds to a growing body of work about how bereavement can affect health, he explained.
His initial work showed why those who have been widowed are at higher risk of cardiovascular problems, bodily symptoms and premature mortality by comparing inflammation in bereaved individuals to matched controls.
Prof Fagundes added: “This work shows who, among those who are bereaved, are at highest risk.
“Now that we know these two key findings, we can design interventions to target this risk factor in those who are most at risk through behavioral or pharmacological approaches.”
Broken Heart Syndrome is a temporary heart condition caused by stressful situations, like the death of a loved one.
People experiencing Broken Heart syndrome can have sudden chest pains and other symptoms that could be caused by the heart’s reaction to a surge of stress hormones.
According to the American Heart Association, Broken Heart Syndrome can cause severe, short-term heart muscle failure and can be fatal.
The good news is that Broken Heart Syndrome is usually treatable. The majority of individuals who experience it make a full recovery, usually within a week.
But doctors are increasingly warning patients that for the brokenhearted, grief can lead to death.