Grief can have effects that go beyond its emotional cost. There is mounting evidence linking grief to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer, memory problems, digestive problems, and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Just this month, researchers discovered that bereaved parents are at higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation, in which the heart beats erratically, increasing the risk of stroke.
Researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, who analyzed parental data from more than 800,000 children born between 1973 and 2016, concluded that bereaved parents “may benefit from increased support from family members and health professionals.” health”. “A broken heart breaks the heart,” is the simple conclusion of Dr. Dang Wei, an epidemiologist at the Karolinska Institutet.
“We found that people who lost a close family member (for example, a child, partner, parent, sibling) had a higher risk of atrial fibrillation, heart disease, myocardial infarction (heart attack), stroke, and heart failure than those that they had not lost a close family member,’ she told Good Health.
It follows research published in JAMA Network Open last year, which found that losing a parent as an adult increased the risk of heart disease and stroke.
There is growing evidence here linking grief to increased risk of physical ailments.
The study, based on a million people in Sweden and Denmark, found that bereavement increased the risk of heart disease by 41% — the risk was highest in the first three months after the loss — and 30% more than attack risk.
The scientists found the correlation regardless of the parent’s cause of death (ie, it was not a genetic link to the parent’s heart problems that was causing the offspring’s heart problem).
The explanation for this link is that grief “can manifest as stress on the body, organ systems and the immune system,” says Dr. Steven Allder, consultant neurologist at Re:Cognition Health, a private clinic in London, which is investigating the effects of emotional trauma on the brain.
“Maybe it explains why people get sick during the mourning period,” he adds.
“Strong and painful emotions triggered by the loss of a loved one, potentially coupled with lack of sleep and a healthy routine, are interpreted by the brain as a stressful situation, causing it to release cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones , which triggers a fight-or-flight response in the body.’
While this stress response is designed to help us escape imminent danger, a chronic state of stress can cause inflammation, which in turn can damage the immune system. This makes you more susceptible to recurrent infections, as well as autoimmune conditions, in which the immune system launches an attack on the body, resulting in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
Cortisol’s impact is wide-ranging: “It can disrupt the normal functioning of every system in the body, including blood sugar regulation, metabolic function, and memory,” says Dr. Allder. This is because cortisol suppresses non-emergency functions, such as digestion.
Meanwhile, the release of adrenaline causes the body to increase heart and breathing rates.
Sudden surges in adrenaline are thought to cause damage to the heart and may be related to so-called broken heart syndrome (or takotsubo cardiomyopathy), where there is a sudden weakening of the muscle in the heart’s left ventricle, its main pumping chamber.
Because the left ventricle cannot contract, the lower part of the ventricle swells out.
It often occurs after bereavement, and about 90 percent of patients are women aged 50 or older, with one in 20 dying in hospital as a result. In survivors, the heart’s shape and pumping ability usually return to normal within three months, but many suffer long-term problems such as pain, palpitations, and shortness of breath.
The most dangerous time to experience a grief-related health problem is in the first three months after the loss, especially of a spouse, says Dr. Allder.
In May 2016, when Linda Aitchison lost her partner of 16 years and the father of her twin 13-year-old daughters, her health rapidly declined. Neil, a BBC journalist, was just 44 when he died of malignant melanoma.
One study found that people who lost a close family member (for example, a child, partner, parent, sibling) had a higher risk of experiencing heart problems
Within a week, a grief-stricken Linda was in aches and pains. Two weeks after her death, she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and then whooping cough. She also developed pneumonia and was hospitalized overnight with an irregular heartbeat.
“Now I know that pain did this to me,” he says. “I remember feeling the agony of pain as if it were something physical,” recalls Linda, 54, a writer from Wolverhampton.
I was not sleeping. She wasn’t eating healthy. She developed a terrible whooping cough, twice in one month. This turned into pneumonia and she couldn’t breathe. I felt my whole body shut down.
The doctors also diagnosed erratic heartbeats, which eventually resolved on their own.
Then in 2017, tragedy struck again when Linda’s best friend, her ‘rock’ after Neil’s death, died suddenly of lung cancer.
Once again, Linda’s physical health took a hit: her blood pressure skyrocketed, she picked up all the bugs, and she gained weight. “I looked and felt terrible,” she says.
While some people benefit from grief counseling, another perhaps more surprising tool to help with grief is exercise.
A study published in BMC Public Health in January, involving people who had experienced the death of a parent between the ages of 10 and 24, found that physical activity helped “alleviate grief outcomes and build resilience.”
Linda found free bereavement counseling through NHS hospices helpful. She started it shortly after Neil’s death and she picked it up after her friend’s death. With her pain becoming more manageable, she was able to regain a healthy weight by eating well, swimming and walking in the fresh air.
“People think that pain is just an emotional thing, but I think we are a whole: our body, mind, and heart, and pain can really affect our bodies,” she says.