Grief can be deadly: Losing loved ones can increase risk of heart problems

TUCSON, Ariz. — No one needs a study to know that losing a loved one can be devastating, both on an emotional level and psychologically. Now, however, researchers from the University of Arizona suggest that grief over the loss of a loved one can also extract a toll on physical health. Scientists studied the impact of grief on heart function, discovering that severe grief often results in a clear rise in blood pressure.

A group of participants who lost loved ones were asked by researchers to recall their moments of grief. When they did, their blood pressure jumped. All in all, study authors say their findings demonstrate an association between grief severity and elevated systolic blood pressure, indicating grief may be a legitimate risk factor for poor cardiac health.

According to senior study author Mary-Frances O’Connor, a UArizona associate professor of psychology who specializes in grief, this study was inspired by the notion of “dying of a broken heart,” which sometimes happens following the loss of a loved one. Elevated risk of mortality following the death of a loved one has been documented by numerous studies over the years. This latest work focused on blood pressure as a possible contributing factor.

A total of 59 people, all of whom lost a close loved one over the prior year, participated in the study.

“We were looking for a way to test the cardiovascular effects of grief during that vulnerable time in the first year after the loss,” says lead study author Roman Palitsky, who was a doctoral student at UArizona during the study and is now the director of research projects in spiritual health at Emory University Woodruff Health Sciences Center, in a university release.

Broken heart
Photo by burak kostak from Pexels

Experiencing grief affects the heart like strenuous exercise

Study authors interviewed each participant and asked them to focus specifically on their feelings of separation and attachment through a process researchers call “grief recall.” The team talked to each person for 10 minutes, asking them to share a moment when they felt very alone after the death of a loved one. They then measured each participant’s blood pressure.

“When you go to a cardiologist, they don’t just measure your blood pressure. They also sometimes do a stress test, like a treadmill, and measure your blood pressure. This is sort of like an emotional stress test,” Prof. O’Connor notes.

Following these grief recall sessions, each person’s systolic blood pressure (pressure exerted by the heart on the arteries while beating) increased. From baseline, systolic blood pressure increased by an average of 21.1 millimeters of mercury (the typical unit used to measure blood pressure). That’s roughly the same increase you would see during moderate exercise.

Sure enough, among the 59 participants, those who showed the highest levels of grief experienced the greatest increase in blood pressure during grief recall.

“This means that it isn’t just the death of a loved one that impacts the heart, but our emotional response to loss that is affecting our heart,” Prof. O’Connor adds.

broken heart woman
(Credit: RODNAE Productions from Pexels)

When we care for loved ones, we often neglect our own health

This work should prove very useful for clinicians, as these findings illustrate that people who are experiencing bereavement are at higher risk for hypertension and other heart-related problems, Prof. O’Connor continues.

“It’s important for psychologists and therapists to encourage grieving clients to get their regular medical checkups. Often, when we’ve been caring for a loved one who’s dying, we neglect our own health care,” the professor comments.

In her Grief, Loss, and Social Stress Lab in the Department of Psychology, Prof. O’Connor studies an intervention called “progressive muscle relaxation.” This technique teaches grieving people to tighten and then fully relax the major muscle groups in their body. This type of body-based intervention can be helpful for people when it comes to grief and curbing their stress levels.

“I continue to look for interventions that will help address the physical and medical side of grieving, in addition to the emotional side,” she concludes.

The study is published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

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John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

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