Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter. Debbie Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher. Dying of a broken heart isn't just a saying – it really can happen.
This assertion isn't down to a handful of tragic but anecdotal real-life stories, there is science to back it up. A study due to be published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology later this year found that widows and widowers had a raised risk of cardiovascular illness and death in the six-month window following a partner's death.
“In the first six months after the loss of a spouse, widows/widowers are at a 41 percent increased risk of mortality,” Chris Fagundes, lead author and assistant professor of psychology in Rice’s School of Social Sciences, said in a statement.
“Importantly, 53 percent of this increased risk is due to cardiovascular disease. This study is an important step toward understanding why this is the case by identifying how bereavement gets under the skin to promote morbidity and mortality.”
Researchers came to this conclusion after tracking 65 volunteers aged 51 to 80, 32 who had recently lost a spouse and a further 33 who had not. Controlling for factors such as age, sex, educational attainment, and body mass index (BMI), the team found elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines (immune markers signaling inflammation in the bloodstream) TNF-alpha (increased by 7 percent) and IL-6 (increased by 5 percent).
The bereaved individuals also displayed a significantly lowered heart rate variability (HRV) – their HRV was 47 percent lower on average in comparison to the control group. This, like the higher concentrations of pro-inflammatory cytokines, increases your risk of cardiac illness.
The researchers also noted the bereaved volunteers reported 20 percent more depressive symptoms than the controls.
“Although not every bereaved individual is at the same risk for cardiac events, it is important to point out that the risk exists,” Fagundes added.
This isn't the first time science has shown that a broken heart is more than just a metaphor. A 2014 study found that widows and widowers are at increased risk of heart attack and stroke the month following a spouse's death. Another found that grief can increase the risk of atrial fibrillation (AF) for up to a year. What's more broken heart syndrome is a thing, though it isn't entirely limited to a loved one's death and can occur after any major stress.
But this is apparently the first to show that bereavement is linked to increased levels of cytokines and a lower HRV.
“In our future work, we seek to identify which widows/widowers are at greatest risk, and which are resilient to the negative physiological consequences of bereavement,” said Fagundes.