For years, doctors have suspected that there is a greater risk of heart attack for people who have just lost a loved one, but there had never been a conclusive study on the immediate effects until January of 2012.
In a study sponsored by the National Institute of Health, researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center interviewed 2,000 patients who had heart attacks over a five year period. When asked about possible triggering events, the participants often reported experience the death of a loved one close to their cardiac events. The research team found that participants had 21 times the normal risk of heart attack on the day after the death of a loved one.
Many previous studies have only focused on people whose spouse had died. This was the first to include the death of any significant person in a participant's life.
In the study write up, lead author Elizabeth Motofsky, suggests that the physical and emotional stress of bereavement may contribute to the increased risk of heart attack. Motofsky emphasizes that not everyone who loses a loved one is at risk for a heart attack, says it's "plausible" that psychological support for the family of someone who has died could reduce the cardiac risk.
What does this mean for grieving parents?
First, it's important to remember that grief isn't just about the emotional effects. Your physical body will also be affected. Higher levels of stress hormones, difficulty sleeping, and increased sympathetic nervous system stimulation all take their toll on a person. So, it's important to pay attention to your physical needs, even when you don't want to.
Second, if you have risk factors for heart attack, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or a family history of heart disease, you could be at greater risk for heart attack after the death of your baby. So, if you have symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, or pain in your shoulder or arm, you may not just be feeling the physical symptoms of stress.
Third, it may not be just grieving parents who are at risk. Grandparents, siblings, aunts or uncles...anyone who has a strong connection to your baby could have an increased chance of heart attack during the grieving period.
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