Recently scientific research has shown the risk of having heart failure or a stroke doubles in the first month after losing a loved one.
The findings add to growing evidence that bereavement doesn’t just increase the risk of depression and anxiety, but can weaken the body’s defenses against all types of disease – from the common cold to cancer.
Doctors even call it broken heart syndrome, not least because you are six times more likely to die in the year after losing a loved one than at any other time.
The phenomenon explains why many widows and widowers die within a few months of their spouses.
When an older colleague lost his wife of almost 50 years a couple of years back, I felt really sorry for him.
Apart from the fact they were very close, the wife was hale and hearty when she left to spend time with her daughter’s new family.
“The next thing I heard was that she slumped and died before they could even take her to the hospital”, he told me sadly as we sat over our once-a-month lunch treat.
A usually boisterous man, he tried to be his old jolly self but it was too much of an effort. He barely touched his lunch. Three weeks later, another colleague called wanting to know if I’d heard of our friend’s demise.
My heart sank. But it wasn’t a surprise really. I just pictured him on our last date, hunched over his beer and muttering, “one minute, I was waving her off, and the next I was watching her remains being lowered into her grave!”
There are many complex causes of broken heart syndrome, but the production of cortisol – a chemical released by the adrenal gland on top of the kidney as part of our ‘fight of flight’ response to danger, is believed to be one of the biggest sources of problems.
The surge of cortisol increases the amount of sugar in the blood to help our muscles work faster. It gets more energy to the brain and speeds up wound repairs. In evolution terms, say the researchers, that’s fine.
But it’s less useful when facing long term emotional distress. Then the hormone can build to harmful levels in the blood, affecting many parts of our bodies.
Hair loss: Within weeks of losing a loved one, some women lose hair at an alarming rate. Hair grows in a natural cycle.
A strand typically grows from the scalp for three years before entering a ‘dormant’ state for three months. It then falls out to make way for a new strand. Any one time, 10 per cent of hairs are dormant, while in a typical day, 30 to 150 fall out naturally.
High levels of cortisol can cause 30 per cent or more of your hair to become dormant and three months later, drop out, causing bald patches and thinning. The good news is this condition, called telogen effluvium, usually cures itself. Within six months, hair should be growing normally.
Headaches: Bereavement can trigger tension headaches -the so-called ‘stress headaches’ regularly experienced by a third of adults.
The causes are not properly understood, but they are often linked to tight shoulder and neck muscles. Alongside dizziness, nausea, palpitations, stomach cramps, and muscle aches, they are common side-effects to people suffering intense emotional stress.
The symptoms are thought to be triggered by the release of cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream. Doctors say that even if a headache isn’t initially triggered by grief, any stress will exacerbate it.
High blood pressure: Not surprisingly, blood pressure usually soars in the first weeks after losing a loved one. That’s because stress hormones, released in your bloodstream, causing the heart to beat faster and blood vessels to narrow.
Doctors say evidence of long term effects of bereavement on blood pressure is not clear. However, a 1997 study of 150 American widows and widowers showed that it remained high 25 months after the death of a spouse. Studies of the families of dead soldiers have shown blood pressure is higher amongst bereaved relatives four years after death.
This could be linked to higher than normal levels of stress hormones, or it could be caused by destructive changes in lifestyle, such as smoking or drinking. Higher blood pressure may not be a serious problem for fit, young people – but for those in middle or old age who may already be at risk, it could be enough to trigger heart attacks or a stroke.
Cancer: The immune system doesn’t just fight off bugs – it’s also crucial in defending against cancer. But huge levels of cortisol triggered by bereavement can weaken the immune system. Studies have shown that widowed women have fewer natural killer cells – the cells in the immune system that attack tumours.
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A Swedish study in 2003 showed that women who had lost a husband were twice as likely to develop breast cancer as women who had not. And a study of more than 6,000 Israeli families in 2000 suggested the incidence of cancer was higher in parents who lost an adult son in the Yom Kipper war.
However, Cancer Research UK says plenty of studies have shown the link is small or non-existent. Teasing out the cause and effects of bereavement and cancer is tricky. Grieving mothers may be more likely to smoke, drink, do less exercise, and overeat, factors that increase the risk of cancer.
Heart Disease and Stroke: The risks of a heart attack are 21 times higher in the 24 hours following the death of a spouse, according to a 2012 Harvard University Study. Within the first week of bereavement, widows are six times more likely to suffer than normal.
The stress of losing a partner can raise heart rates, increase blood pressure and make blood sticker. Sleep and appetite are disrupted, and people forget to take their regular medication – all increasing the dangers. Studies have also shown that recently bereaved people suffer changes in their heart rhythms, which puts them at risk.
Diabetes: The loss of a loved one may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, the version of the disease that usually appears in middle age.
A Danish study in 2005 showed mothers who had lost a child in the previous 18 years were 41 per cent more likely to end up being treated in hospital for diabetes than mothers who had not.
Scientists believe chronic high levels of cortisol damage the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin – the substance which controls blood sugar. Complications of type 2 diabetes can be serious and include poor circulation, sight loss, heart or kidney disease, and miscarriage.