Following the loss of a loved one, there’s an awful lot that happens to our bodies. Along with the myriad of emotional turmoil, heartbreak can cause hormonal changes that trigger broken heart syndrome, increasing our chances of suffering from and even dying of a heart attack. In a recent study published in the American Heart Journal, researchers uncovered two common medications that could greatly reduce cardiovascular risk in those suffering from bereavement.
Broken heart syndrome is a temporary cardiac condition brought on by devastating loss and extreme emotions. It’s also referred to as stress cardiomyopathy or apical ballooning syndrome, as the condition can disrupt the heart’s normal pumping function and trigger parts of the organ to pump more forcefully than they should. It can linger for months after a stressful event and has been shown to increase the risk of a heart attack in someone who is bereaved compared to someone who has not recently suffered a loss or stressful life event.
In a world-first study led by the University of Sydney and funded by Heart Research Australia, researchers have found that the risk of a major cardiac event is particularly high in those grieving a child or spouse. Lead investigator Professor Geoffrey Tofler said: “The increased risk of heart attack can last up to six months. It is highest in the first days following bereavement and remains at four times the risk between seven days to one month after the loss.”
To tackle these statistics, the team ran a clinical trial to test if they could reduce risk factors associated with cardiac events without adversely affecting the grieving process. They enrolled 85 spouses or parents in the study who had each lost their family member in the previous two weeks. Of that sample, 42 participants received small daily doses of aspirin and a beta-blocker – a medication used to manage abnormal heart rhythms – while 43 participants were given placebos. Both groups were monitored to see how their blood pressure, heart rate, and blood clotting were affected over a six-week period.
Their findings revealed that those participants in the active medication pool experienced fewer spikes in blood pressure and heart rate, as well as showing reduced risk for clotting, which is a leading cause of myocardial infarction (heart attack). There was also no evidence of any negative impact with regards to the participants' emotional responses, and in fact the active medication seemed to lower incidences of anxiety and depression.
"Bereavement following the death of a loved one is one of the most stressful experiences to which almost every human is exposed," said Professor Tofler. "Our study is the first clinical trial to examine how the cardiac risk factors could be mitigated during early bereavement."
While the researchers admit that larger long-term studies are called for to better identify who would benefit most from this preventative treatment, the findings provide a new route of management for healthcare professionals treating bereaved patients who they consider to be at a high risk of broken heart syndrome and its associated risks. They also encourage those experiencing such cardiac symptoms to speak with their healthcare professional before taking such medications as incorrect use could do more harm than good.