In the post below, updated a couple of times, it’s clear that there’s a real risk of someone elderly dying following a bereavement, particularly if they have a pre-existing condition.
Danish researchers have now found that younger people are also at risk of heart irregularities after the death of a partner.
People under 60 are 40% more likely to develop atrial fibrillation which has high risks of stroke and heart failure. They are more vulnerable to heart complications in the weeks following their loved one’s death or if it was unexpected. The risk is highest between 8 and 14 days after the loss of a loved one and it takes up to a year before the risks drop to normal levels.
“The loss of a partner is considered one of the most stressful life events and is likely to affect most people, independently of coping mechanisms” the researchers said.
Researchers at St Andrews University looked at more than 58,000 couples and discovered that 40% of men and 28% of women die within 3 years of their partners – and some actually die on the same day or within a couple of weeks.
For men in particular this widowhood effect shortens their life expectancy, regardless of the actual cause of death.
After making allowances for the usual suspects ie cancer, accidents, alcohol, and even murders, they found that after the death of a partner the survivor is more likely to die as a result.
Famous examples include Johnny Cash who died 4 months after his wife, James Callaghan who died just 11 days after his wife of 67 years, and more recently a relatively young 40-year old man Simon Monjack died of a cardiac arrest 5 months after his wife Brittany Murphy and was said to have died of a broken heart.
The social effect of losing a partner means that the survivor can give up on life within 6 months. The japanese identified a condition 20 years ago known as stress cardiomyopathy, characterised by a sudden, temporary, weakening of the heart muscles, which is triggered by emotional stress or a break-up and is called the broken heart syndrome.
American doctors say the condition can be treated with heart drugs or aspirin.
But research from the Paul-Brousse Hospital in Paris – on 6,000 middle-aged adults over 5.5 years – found that people who were both depressed and had heart diseases were 5 times more likely to die than people who had only one of the diseases.
The combination tripled their chances of dying of any cause and quadrupled their chances of dying from a heart attack or stroke.
The good news is that carrots and broccoli can cut the risks of cancer and heart disease. Anti-oxidants such as carotenoids, which help fight the disease, are found in sweet potatoes, pumpkins, carrots, broccoli, green beans and spinach.
The high level of alpha-carotene found in the blood was linked to a reduced risk of death over 14 years from cardio-vascular disease and cancer. These carotenoids, alpha- and beta-, and lycopene act as anti-oxidants which combat oxygen-related damage to DNA.
The research was carried out in Atlanta at the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention between 1988 and 2006 on over 15,000 adults from the age of 20.
And more research from America shows that middle aged men who drink a half-litre (nearly a pint) of orange juice a day can lower their blood pressure and cut heart disease.
Orange juice was known to be good for your heart but no-one was sure why. The research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that it contains a naturally occurring plant chemical called hesperidin. Drinking the orange juice every day for only 4 weeks can reduce average diastolic blood pressure readings by 3 to 5 points.
Updated 6 September 2011: Interesting Times article today on microneurographer Dr Yrsa Sverrisdottir who led a Swedish team which has discovered exactly how you can die of a broken heart.
This was a familiar problem to Japanese doctors in the 90s who found that the hearts of people who suffered emotional crises changed shape constricting blood flow. Sometimes people recovered spontaneously, sometimes they died.
Two years ago Sverrisdottir began studying patients with broken hearts, patients who would not necessarily be considered at risk of heart attacks but who had the symptoms.
She measured the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and related it to brain wave patterns. She says that when someone has a big shock or suffers distress the brain sends out waves of stress hormones – the fight or flight reaction – which can be overwhelming and affects the heart; in some cases stunning it.
It may stay in a constricted state for days as the person recovers – or doesn’t. Older women seem more at risk due to loss of oestrogen and testosterone which protect the body and give people mental stability.
It just demonstrates the fine balance between the brain and the body and also confirms what people have believed for centuries – that you can die of a broken heart.
Updated 12 September 2014: Researchers at Birmingham University think that during the grieving period elderly people may suffer from lowered immunity leaving them open to infection according to a report in Immunity & Ageing.
They investigated people who had lost loved ones within the last 2 months. People aged 18-45 were more depressed and anxious and had higher levels of cortisol (a measure of stress) but their immune systems were normal. People aged 65 and over shows impaired immune responses which were less efficient at tackling bacteria.
The scientist believe that the immune deficiency may be the result of an increase in cortisol which the younger people were protected from by another hormone DHEA.
Cortisol production doesn’t change over a person’s life-time but the production of DHEA starts reducing at age 30. Professor of immune cell biology at Birmingham, Janet Lord said “We could try and rectify this by giving patients DHEA to address the imbalance or encourage people to engage with family and friends to keep cortisol levels down“.