World-first study: Reducing heart attack risk in early bereavement

World-first research led by Heart Research Australia’s Chair Professor Geoffrey Tofler suggests the risk of a heart attack in early bereavement may be reduced by using common preventative medications in a novel and innovative way.

Professor Tofler said the study built on previous research, which showed clear links between bereavement and increased risk of heart attack, particularly among spouses or parents of the deceased. The increased risk is highest over the first month, and can last for up to six months.

“This is the first randomised, controlled clinical trial conducted to reduce cardiac risk in the early bereavement weeks and demonstrates it is possible to reduce cardiac risk factors during this time, without adversely affecting bereavement symptoms,” Prof Tofler said.

The investigators studied 85 recently bereaved spouses or parents. Forty- three were given placebos, but 42 received daily doses of the beta blocker metoprolol, and aspirin, for six weeks. Their heart rate and blood pressure was carefully monitored, and they underwent blood tests to assess blood clotting changes.

“The main study findings showed the active medication, used in a low dose once a day, successfully reduced spikes in blood pressure and heart rate, as well as some positive changes in blood clotting tendency,” Prof Tofler said. The investigators carefully monitored the psychological state of the participants throughout the trial. “While we are continuing longer- term review, the medication had no adverse effect on the bereavement process, and indeed lessened symptoms of anxiety and depression,” Prof Tofler said.

Associate Professor Tom Buckley said while the two medications tested were commonly used long- term to reduce cardiovascular risk, they had not previously been tested during early acute bereavement as a short-term preventative therapy.

“We have now demonstrated the therapy to be safe and effective which should create impetus for future studies to assess if and how these medications should be used for short periods of emotional stress, such as after natural disasters or mass bereavement where currently there are no guidelines to inform clinicians,” A/Prof Buckley said.

“The early lowering of heart rate after traumatic stress has been shown to lower risk of longer-term stress-related health conditions, and we are currently conducting longer-term follow- up assessments. However, the findings provide encouragement for the recently bereaved to discuss the implications for their own health with their GP to see if they might benefit from this preventative therapy, short-term, to lower cardiac risk at this traumatic time.”