NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Older men and women whose partners died within the past month are at an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, according to a new study from the UK.
Researchers found the chance of having a heart attack or stroke doubled within the 30 days after people lost their significant other.
"The period after death of a loved one is a time of increased vulnerability to a range of health problems, including heart attacks and strokes," Dr. Sunil Shah said. "It is important that doctors, family and friends understand this risk and offer help and support to bereaved individuals."
Shah is one of the study's authors from St. George's University of London.
"Although we know that the chance of dying of a heart attack or stroke increases after losing someone close, we had less information on the overall effect of bereavement (on) heart attacks and strokes," including those that aren't fatal, he wrote in an email to Reuters Health.
"We think ours is the first large study to look at this after death of a partner," he added.
Shah and his colleagues analyzed the records of patients seen at 401 UK primary care offices between February 2005 and September 2012.
They compared information on 30,477 people between the ages of 60 and 89 who lost their significant other during that time and 83,588 people who were otherwise similar but did not lose a partner.
The researchers found that within 30 days of their partners' deaths, 0.16 percent of the bereaved group had a heart attack or stroke. That compared to 0.08 percent of the non-bereaved group that had a heart attack or stroke over an equivalent period.
The risks of blood clots in the lungs - known as pulmonary emboli - and severe and sudden blockages in the heart's arteries were also increased after a partner's death.
Any extra risks appeared to dissipate after 30 days, the researchers write in JAMA Internal Medicine.
"We think it is important that doctors, friends and family are aware of this risk so they can ensure care is as good as possible at a time of increased vulnerability before and after loss of a loved one," Shah wrote.
"This can include making sure that bereaved individuals continue with their regular prescribed medication, attend health checks with their doctor or nurse as usual and report any new health problems," he added.
Subu Subramanian, who was not involved with the new research but has studied the so-called widowhood effect at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, said the new study's results jibe with previous research.
He also said it's good to see the increased risks after a partner's death seem to eventually disappear.
"It's just that you need to bring in some resources at that time in a very targeted and intense way to alleviate that," he said.
"Even the types of interventions we may think about could vary if you're only thinking short term," he added.
For example, he said doctors could simply encourage the bereaved person to have more interactions with friends and family. Or they could prescribe antidepressants and sleeping pills.
"It is important to understand that bereavement is a time when people are vulnerable to a range of physical and mental health problems, not just heart attacks and strokes, and that good support and care at this time is likely to helpful," Shah said.
SOURCE: bit.ly/MplumM JAMA Internal Medicine, online February 24, 2014.