Bereaved Spouses/Partners, The Road Less Traveled

Grieving for Loved Ones Increases Risk of Dying from Broken Heart

by Jo Willey, Health Correspondent
Wednesday August 22,2012

GRIEVING for a loved one really can put you at risk of dying of a broken heart, according to research.

Spouses of people who suffer a sudden heart attack are at a dramatically increased risk of depression, anxiety or suicide afterwards.

Even if their partner survives it can have a major impact on their health.

And it seems that men are harder hit when they lose their wife, with the level of shock suffered comparable to the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by many war veterans.

The study shows for the first time that a heart attack is a bigger psychological blow to the victim’s wife or husband than any other illness and highlights the need for providing them with special care and attention.

Research carried out in Denmark shows that spouses of people who suffer a sudden heart attack have an increased risk of depression, anxiety, or suicide after the event, even if their partner survives.

It found that, in the year after losing their partner to a heart attack, people were three times as likely to be taking antidepressants compared with the year before.

For people whose husband or wife survived the heart attack, use of antidepressants still went up by 17 per cent, it found.

Maureen Talbot, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “A heart attack can impact the whole family and this study emphasises the importance of caring for the partners of heart attack sufferers.

“We know that people can feel anxious or helpless when a loved one has a heart attack. It is essential they receive the emotional and practical support they need during this often traumatic time.

“If you are dealing with a heart attack in the family, don’t feel you have to cope alone. Call our Heart Helpline to speak to a cardiac nurse or bereavement advisor.”

The researchers, whose findings are published online in the European Heart Journal, used Danish registries to compare 16,506 spouses of people who died from a heart attack between 1997 and 2008 with 49,518 spouses of people who died from other causes.

They also matched 44,566 spouses of patients who suffered a non-fatal heart attack with 131,563 spouses of people admitted to hospital for another non-fatal condition.

They then looked at the use of antidepressants and benzodiazepines used for treating anxiety before and up to a year after the event and records of contact with the health system for depression and suicide.

Dr Emil Fosbol, a Copenhagen cardiologist who was working at Duke University Medical Centre in North Carolina at the time of the research, said: “We found more than three times the number of people whose spouses died from an AMI (acute myocardial infarction) were using antidepressants in the year after the event compared with the year before.

“In addition, nearly 50 times as many spouses used a benzodiazepine after the event compared to before.

“For people whose spouse had died from a non-AMI cause, we saw a much higher rate of medication use than for other causes and they had an approximately 50 per cent higher likelihood of claiming a prescription for these drugs.

“Those whose spouse survived an AMI had a 17 per cent higher use of antidepressants after the event, whereas spouses of patients surviving some other, non-AMI related condition had an unchanged use of antidepressants after the event compared to before.”

The researchers believe it is the sudden and unexpected nature of a heart attack which causes the extreme impact on the spouse.

Dr Fosbol said: “If your partner dies suddenly from a heart attack, you have no time to prepare psychologically for the death, whereas if someone is ill with, for example, cancer, there is more time to grow used to the idea. The larger psychological impact of a sudden loss is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.”