Loss of spouse could make one more likely to ‘die of a broken heart’

This could make a bereaved spouse more likely to “die of a broken heart".

Image of a puzzle heart and stethoscope
Image: Rice University

According to a new study from Rice University, widowed individuals are more likely to develop risk factors for cardiovascular disease and death after the demise of their spouse. The investigation is the first to show that bereavement is related to elevated levels of ex vivo cytokines and lower HRV.

Scientists discovered that people who have lost a life partner within the most recent three months have higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines (immune markers that indicate inflammation in the bloodstream) and lower heart rate variation (HRV) contrasted and non-deprived people who share the sex, age, weight list, and instructive level. Both are factors that expansion a person’s hazard for cardiovascular disease, including demise.

Scientists involved 32 recently bereaved individuals in the study. After analyzing them, scientists found that:

  • 47 percent lower levels of HRV than the 33 people in the control group.
  • The bereaved individuals exhibited 7 percent higher levels of TNF-alpha (one type of cytokine) and 5 percent higher levels of IL-6 (another type of cytokine) than the control group.

Finally, the bereaved spouses reported 20 percent higher levels of depressive symptoms than the control group. Participants ranged in age from 51 to 80 (average 67.87) and included 22 percent men and 78 percent women. The sex and age of the control group were comparable, and the results were the same when accounting for slight differences in weight and health behaviors.

CHRIS FAGUNDES (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)
CHRIS FAGUNDES (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychology in Rice’s School of Social Sciences and the study’s lead author said, “In the first six months after the loss of a spouse, widows/widowers are at a 41 percent increased risk of mortality. Importantly, 53 percent of this increased risk is due to cardiovascular disease. This study is an important step toward understanding why this is the case by identifying how bereavement gets under the skin to promote morbidity and mortality.”

“The study adds to a growing understanding of how bereavement can impact heart health. He hopes the research will help medical professionals better understand the biological mechanisms triggered by bereavement and allow for the creation of targeted psychological and/or pharmacological interventions to reduce or prevent the toll of a “broken heart.””

Although not every bereaved individual is at the same risk for cardiac events, it is important to point out that the risk exists. In our future work, we seek to identify which widows/widowers are at greatest risk, and which are resilient to the negative physiological consequences of bereavement.”

The study was co-authored by Kyle Murdock, an assistant professor of biobehavioral health at Pennsylvania State University and a former postdoctoral research fellow in the Fagundes laboratory at Rice; Angie LeRoy, a psychology graduate student at Rice; Faiza Baameur, a postdoctoral fellow of pharmacology at Vanderbilt University; Julian Thayer, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University and Cobi Heijnen, a researcher at MD Anderson in Houston.

The study will appear in an upcoming edition of Psychoneuroendocrinology.