Cardiovascular risk reduction in bereavement

Reducing the risk of a ‘broken heart’ during bereavement.

Professor Tofler discussing his world-first research with Michele Harris from ABC News.

Can you die from a broken heart? There have always been the stories of someone dying of a broken heart after someone they loved had died, and indeed that is correct – there is an increased risk.

Professor Tofler states that research highlights that “the peak risk of heart attack is in the first few days after bereavement and remains at four times the risk between seven days to one month after the loss.”

But until now there have not been studies to show how that increased risk could be reduced.

A research study led by Professor Geoffrey Tofler, funded by Heart Research Australia, has recently been published in the American Heart Journal highlighting the risk of suffering a heart attack and death among bereaved people and how this risk can be reduced. This world-first study has shown that using common medication in a novel way, can help lower the risk of a heart attack from the grief reaction during bereavement.

On embarking on this research, Professor Tofler and his team had 2 main questions:
1. Why was this risk increased?
2. Is there something we can do to help people at that difficult time?

Bereavement following the death of a loved one, particularly those grieving a spouse or child is one of the most stressful things one can experience.

Tom Buckley, a former PHD student whose work was funded by Heart Research Australia, firstly studied the changes that occur in bereavement – and found an increase in blood pressure; increase in heart rate and increase in blood clotting that could increase the risk of a heart attack. At the same time, the study highlighted the well-known increase in anxiety and depression amongst recently bereaved patients.

Once the team could show the changes that occur in bereavement, they then set about determining if there was something that could be done to help patients at this time.

The team chose medications that have been shown to counteract these changes in other situations, so set about to see if these medications would work in a bereavement setting.

This research study is the first clinical trial in the world to examine how cardiac risk factors could be alleviated during early bereavement.

A group of 85 spouses or parents were enrolled in the study within two weeks of losing their family member. They were given either a placebo or the active treatment of low daily doses of a beta blocker and aspirin for 6 weeks. The team then monitored heart rate and blood pressure closely and took tests to assess changes to blood clotting.

The results showed that the low dose, once a day active medication, successfully reduced spikes in blood pressure and heart rate. It also demonstrated some positive change in blood clotting tendencies and showed no adverse effect in the bereavement process: in fact, a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression were observed. After treatment stopped there was still some benefit to treated patients with blood pressure and anxiety at 6 weeks.

The results from this study provide important news for clinicians in how they manage people processing bereavement and should be considered in people that may be at high risk during this time. This research also serves as a reminder to family, doctors and clinicians to keep in mind the well-being of the bereaved often at a time when the focus is often on the person who has died.

Professor Tofler and his team wanted to express their appreciation to Heart Research Australia and their donors for their support. They are quick to point out that funding was a crucial factor for this world first breakthrough research. Without the financial support from Heart Research Australia and its generous donors these studies may not have happened.

To read more about the other research projects Heart Research Australia is funding click here.

To donate to be able make more world-first breakthroughs like Professor Tofler’s happen click here.