What Is Broken Heart Syndrome?
Death of Partner - Effect on Survivor
According to Dr. Nancy Goldberg, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, the death of a loved one is a dangerous time for the surviving spouse. This is particularly true for an older person who might already have some health problems. Also, when a couple is elderly and have been married for many years the grief might be more pronounced.
The sudden shock of death particularly might cause the surviving spouse to have a serious medical problems, such as a heart attack that is actually referred to as “broken heart syndrome”. Early death may occur for the survivor, which is referred to as the “widowhood effect”. These has been true for men and women around the world according to a study the NIH completed.
The amount of years a couple has been married has a direct effect on a death occurring among the elderly population, affecting about 30% in the first three months and around 15% in the next several months. However, some studies show a lower percentage of cardiac events for women than men.
Cardiac Events Following Loss of a Spouse
A 2012 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine assessed 30,447 individuals, aged 60 to 89 years, and they found an increased risk for the surviving spouse to have a myocardial infarction (MI), either acute or non-acute within 30 days of the death. There is also an increase in a pulmonary embolisms.
It has been recognized for a long time that bereavement is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. We all experience emotions like anger or anxiety, but extended grief that lasts for months is very difficult.
Dr. Peter Stone is a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School and a senior physician in the Cardiovascular Division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He stated, “Emotional stress will clearly wreak havoc with the sympathetic nervous system, and that can lead to problems as the authors described.” This system is responsible for the body’s fight-or-flight response, which means adrenaline is at an all time high over a longer period of time.
Exceptions to Above Studies
The only exception to these statistics is for spouses losing a mate to Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease. It is possibly the fact that the surviving spouse has been a caretaker for their spouse during these difficult diseases, plus the spouse may have experienced anticipatory grief, thus preparing for the loss of their partner. Men and women often seem to experience the same mortality statistics in studies despite the cause of their spouses death.
My father passed away twelve years ago after a long illness, and my mother survived but was hospitalized numerous times starting shortly after his death. My father suffered greatly during the last year of his life, so in some ways we felt at least he was not suffering any longer. The loss of a spouse affects emotional and mental health, in addition to physical health. Fatigue and appetite changes are common.
Dr. Mary Ann McLaughlin on "Broken Heart Syndrome"
Stages of Grief
Elisabeth Kubler Ross is the best known individual who studied the five stages of grief. There is no time limit for any stage, and sometimes a person may move forward and then back a stage for a period of time. It could depend on the cause of the death of the spouse.
These stages include:
Denial - a stage of disbelief that helps process the loss
Anger - an important stage, which may include doctors, friends or even anger at God
Bargaining - it might make us wonder what we could have done differently
Depression - an empty feeling may occur, withdrawal from life, or other feelings occur
Acceptance - accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone; the new normal
Acceptance does not mean everything is okay. The feeling of loss may still occur, but it is learning to live in the world of what is now normal. This is a time where there are more good days than bad ones. Some feel they are betraying their loved one, but over time these feelings will subside.
While age is clearly a factor for an increased risk of death, it is important to know what we can do to help these surviving partners live through this difficult time. The mourning process is important, but there are some things that can ease the difficulty.
Tips for the Grieving Spouse
Important considerations for those beginning several months of grief:
Family support is important
Eat a healthy diet
Walk or get some type of exercise every day
Taking their medicine
See a physician as necessary for any new unhealthy symptoms
Joining a grief support group
Read one of the books specifically written for the survivor
Get out for some activity, such as lunch with a friend
Family Member or Friends Can Be Supportive
If you have a friend that has lost their spouse there are some thing you can do to help them also.
Reach out to that friend often and repeatedly. They may not always have much to say, but not hearing from loved ones is one things expressed in grief groups. This hurting person needs to know you are a friend all the time, and there is no right or wrong thing to say, just be available.
It would be appropriate to ask then how they are doing today, because that acknowledges the fact that you know they are experiencing profound grief. Then, just do a lot of listening in case they want to talk about the pain or maybe some experiences they had, even though you may have heard it before.
Practical Tips for Dealing with the Bereaved
As grief is so exhausting and often the person does not even feel up to even cooking. Taking them a meal, taking them out to eat or even offering to do some grocery shopping may be very welcomed. Some people need help even paying their bills, or you might help them with some type of clean-up job around their home.
It is okay to use the name of the person they lost when you are talking. Sometimes memories and stories are appreciated when these bereaved person is going through the stages of grief. Also, holidays, birthdays or anniversaries maybe a time when support is greatly appreciated. It is important to understand if your religious faith is different then your relative of friend, so be respectful always.
Relationships will change as different family members or friends take on new roles. New friends may be made, particularly is the individual attends a grief support group. When people go through a similar difficult experience the group members understand the feelings. They will often make helpful suggestions.
It is difficult to lose a loved one, but with enough support time will pass and the days will improve.
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Pamela Oglesby