Death of a partner linked to increased risk of irregular heartbeat

5 April 2016        

Category: BHF Comment

Gillian Grey relfections of research image

A study of over 80,000 people diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, one of the most common forms of abnormal heart rhythm, has suggested that the death of a partner is linked to an increased risk of developing the disease.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark, suggested that the risk of developing an irregular heartbeat for the first time was 41% higher among those who had been bereaved than it was among those who had not experienced such a loss.

Our thoughts on the findings

Maureen Talbot, one of our Senior Cardiac Nurses, 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 to see their GP if they experience any symptoms.”

Atrial fibrillation

Normally, the heart’s natural pacemaker sends out a regular electrical impulse that travels through the heart. But when someone has atrial fibrillation (AF), impulses fire off from different places in the atria (the top heart chambers), causing chaotic electrical activity, which makes them have an irregular, and sometimes fast, pulse. AF affects about one million people in the UK – or 1.7 per cent of the population – but many more are undiagnosed and don’t know they have it.

Research is the answer

BHF Professor Andrew Steptoe is researching emotional stress and heart disease as our Chair of Psychology. Read more about his work and donate now to help us continue to support it.