Does bereavement put people at risk of heart rhythm problems?

A red rose positioned on top of a gravestone

You can die of a broken heart, the media claimed after a new study from Denmark was released. We look at why is this coverage might be misleading.

A study has suggested that  the death of a partner can lead to an increased risk of atrial fibrillation (AF), the most common type of irregular heart rhythm. 

The researchers, from Aarhus University in Denmark, collated data from almost 89,000 people diagnosed with atrial fibrillation between 1995 and 2014, and compared it to a group of 886,000 people without AF. 

After taking into account a number of factors, the researchers calculated that the risk of developing an irregular heartbeat for the first time was 41 per cent higher among those who had been bereaved.

The study, published in the journal Open Heart, also found that the risk of developing AF increased the most of the person who died was under 60 years old, and if the death was unexpected. 

The risk was at its highest 8-14 days after the loss, and after a year the risk had dropped to the same level as non-bereaved people.

How the story was covered

This study highlights a significant physical effect – a greater risk of developing atrial fibrillation when recently bereaved

Maureen Talbot
Senior Cardiac Nurse

The story was covered widely, including in the Daily Mail, Guardian, as well as the Telegraph. Some of the coverage inflated the findings, such as the Telegraph headline ‘What became of the broken-hearted? They may have died, scientists say’.

The Guardian headline was ‘You can die of a broken heart, study indicates’, and the article went on to refer to “the risk of dying from a broken heart”.

However, a high risk of AF doesn’t equal death: there are currently over 1.1 million people in the UK living with the condition. AF does increase the risk of stroke if a person is not taking anticoagulant medication, but this observational study didn’t look at whether people diagnosed with AF later died from complications. Previous research suggests that bereavement can increase the risk of death for a partner, but that wasn’t the purpose of this study.

How good was this research?

Two strengths of the study are the large number of people it included, and the 19-year period it covered. However, a limitation was that the researchers only included people who had been diagnosed with AF in a hospital; it did not include anyone who was diagnosed at their GP surgery or in primary care.

Another limitation could be how the researchers defined a partner, as the participants had to be married or recorded as cohabiting on the Civil Registration System in order to qualify as a partner.

The researchers also said that while they adjusted for some factors that could have affected the result, others were not included, for example they had no information on the bereaved person’s lifestyle, physical activities and family history of AF.

Strengths of the study are the large number of people it included, and the 19-year period it covered

Moreover, the researchers have only found an “association” between bereaved partners and an increased AF risk. It cannot be said that losing a partner causes AF. The cause of the higher risk of AF is “unclear”, the researchers said, although acute stress may be involved. 

They are calling for further research to identify causes and to find out whether other stressful events could trigger AF.

The BHF view

Maureen Talbot, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “The bereavement of a partner is a devastating event in anyone’s life but the effect can be even worse when a death is sudden or premature. 

“Our research has shown how emotional stress can have an adverse effect on the heart but this study also highlights a significant physical effect – a greater risk of developing atrial fibrillation when recently bereaved. This risk appears even greater the more sudden the death or younger that person is.

“Studies to increase understanding of the cause of this finding are needed but it is important to ensure the newly bereaved, regardless of their age, are monitored and supported by their loved ones, and  see their GP if they experience any symptoms,” she said.

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