CHICAGO The death of a spouse or child can trigger potentially harmful rapid increases in heart rate and changes in heart-rhythm regularity, but a study showed the measures revert back to normal ranges within six months, researchers said on Sunday.
"While the focus at the time of bereavement is naturally directed toward the deceased person, the health and welfare of bereaved survivors should also be of concern to medical professionals, as well as family and friends," said Thomas Buckley, acting director of postgraduate studies at the University of Sydney Nursing School in Sydney, Australia.
Heart attacks and sudden cardiac death have previously been associated with recent bereavement, but previous research has not been able to explain the link, or why the risk appears to wane over time.
In the new study, 24-hour heart monitors and other tests enabled researchers to document increases in heart rate and reduced heart rate variability -- a measure of the heart's rhythmic regularity.
The study showed bereaved patients had almost twice the number of episodes of rapid heartbeats, or tachycardia -- 2.23 episodes vs. 1.23 episodes -- than non-bereaved participants in the first weeks after the family member's death. But after six months, their numbers were lower than the non-bereaved volunteers.
The average heart rate for bereaved patients was 75.1 beats per minute in the early stages of the study, compared with 70.7 in the non-bereaved. But the rate for the bereaved patients reverted to 70.7 after six months.
"Increased heart rate and reduced heart rate variability in the early months of bereavement are possible mechanisms of increased cardiovascular risk during this often very stressful period," said Buckley, the study's lead researcher.
He presented the results at the annual scientific meeting of the American Heart Association, being held in Chicago.
The study also assessed levels of depression and anxiety, which rose greatly after the death of a family member, but abated only somewhat after six months.
The average depression score in the bereaved was 26.3, as assessed by a standard measurement scale, compared to only 6.1 percent in the non-bereaved. The difference declined after six months, but remained almost three times higher than the non-bereaved group.
"While our findings do not establish causality, they are consistent with evidence for psychosocial triggering of cardiovascular events," Buckley said.
(Reporting by Ransdell Pierson, editing by Martin Golan)