The death of a spouse is linked to increased risk of developing an irregular heartbeat up to a year after the bereavement, says a study adding that the risk is prevalent among those below 60.
The condition known as atrial fibrillation — itself a risk factor for stroke and heart failure — can also flare up in cases when the loss was least expected.
According to Danish researchers, acute stress may directly disrupt normal heart rhythms and prompt the production of chemicals involved in inflammation.
“The elevated risk was especially high for those who were young and those who lost a relatively healthy partner,” said Simon Graff of Aarhus University in Denmark. The team collected information on 88,612 people newly diagnosed with atrial fibrillation and 886,120 healthy people.
They looked at several factors that might influence atrial fibrillation risk which included time since the bereavement, age and sex, heart disease and diabetes, the health of the partner a month before death, and whether they were single. The results, published in the online journal Open Heart, indicated that the risk of developing an irregular heartbeat was 41 per cent higher among those who had been bereaved than it was among those who had not experienced such a loss.
The risk seemed to be greater during eight to 14 days following a death, after which it gradually subsided until after a year the risk was similar to that of someone who had not been bereaved.
The highest risk was seen among people under the age of 60: they were more than twice as likely to develop atrial fibrillation if they had been bereaved and the risk also seemed to be greater where the partner’s death had been unexpected.
Those whose partners were relatively healthy in the month before death, were 57 per cent more likely to develop atrial fibrillation.