Grief can have effects beyond the emotional toll. There is growing evidence that grief is associated with an increased risk of conditions from heart disease and cancer to memory problems, digestive problems and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Just this month, researchers discovered that bereaved parents have an increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation, in which the heart beats irregularly, increasing the risk of stroke.
The researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who looked at data from the parents of more than 800,000 children born between 1973 and 2016, concluded that bereaved families could receive “more support from relatives and health professionals.” “A broken heart breaks the heart,” is the simple conclusion of Dr. Dang Wei, an epidemiologist at the Karolinska Institute.
“We found that individuals who lost a close relative (e.g., a child, partner, parent, sibling) had a higher risk of atrial fibrillation, heart disease, myocardial infarction (heart attack), stroke, and heart failure than those who had not. a close relative,” he told Good Health.
It follows research published in the journal JAMA Network Open last year, which found that losing a parent as an adult increased the risk of heart disease and stroke.
here is growing evidence linking grief to an increased risk of physical ailments
The study, based on one million people in Sweden and Denmark, found that death-related deaths had a 41 percent increased risk of heart disease – the risk was highest in the first three months after the loss – and a 30 percent increased risk of heart disease. heart disease. heart attack.
The scientists found the correlation regardless of the parent’s cause of death (i.e., it wasn’t a genetic link to the parent’s heart problems that caused the offspring’s heart problem).
The explanation for this connection is that grief “can manifest itself as stress on the body, organ systems and immune system,” says Dr Steven Allder, neurologist consultant at Re:Cognition Health, a private clinic in London, who researches the effects of emotional trauma on the brain.
“Maybe it explains why people get sick during the mourning period,” he adds.
“The strong and painful emotions released by the loss of a loved one — possibly in combination with a lack of sleep and a healthy routine — are interpreted by the brain as a stressful situation, triggering the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, causing a fight.” arises. or-flight response in the body.”
While this stress response is designed to help us escape impending danger, a chronic state of stress can cause inflammation, which in turn can damage the immune system. This makes you more susceptible to recurring infections, as well as autoimmune diseases, where the immune system launches an attack on the body, resulting in conditions such as 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-necessary functions like your digestion.
Meanwhile, the release of adrenaline causes the body to increase the heart and breathing rate.
Adrenalin rushes are believed to cause heart damage and may be associated with so-called broken heart syndrome (or takotsubo cardiomyopathy), in which the muscle in the left ventricle, the main pumping chamber, suddenly weakens.
Because the left ventricle cannot contract, the bottom of the ventricle balloons outward.
It often occurs after a death and about 90 percent of patients are women aged 50 or older, resulting in one in 20 dying in hospital. In survivors, the heart’s shape and pumping ability usually return to normal within three months, but many have long-term problems such as pain, palpitations, and shortness of breath.
The greatest risk period for experiencing a bereavement-related health problem comes in the first three months after a loss, especially of a spouse, says Dr. Allder.
In May 2016, when Linda Aitchison lost her partner of 16 years and the father of their then 13-year-old twin daughters, her health rapidly deteriorated. Neil, a BBC journalist, was only 44 when he died of malignant melanoma.
One study found that those who lost a close relative (e.g., a child, partner, parent, sibling) were at greater risk of heart problems
Within a week, Linda, distraught with grief, was suffering aches and pains. Two weeks after his death, she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and then whooping cough. She also developed pneumonia and was hospitalized overnight with an irregular heartbeat.
“I now know that grief did this to me,” she says. “I remember feeling the heartache of grief as if it were something physical,” Linda, 54, a writer from Wolverhampton, recalls.
‘I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating healthy. I got terrible whooping cough – twice a month. This turned into pneumonia and I couldn’t breathe. I felt my whole body shut down.’
Doctors also diagnosed an irregular heartbeat, which eventually resolved on its own.
Then, in 2017, disaster struck again when Linda’s best friend – her ‘rock’ after Neil’s passing – passed away very suddenly from lung cancer.
Again, Linda’s physical health suffered – her blood pressure skyrocketed, she picked up every bug and gained weight. “I looked and felt horrible,” she says.
While some people benefit from grief counseling, exercise is another perhaps more surprising means of helping with grief.
A study published in BMC Public Health in January, involving people who had experienced the death of a parent when they were between the ages of 10 and 24, found that physical activity helped “ease the effects of grief and build resilience.” ‘.
Linda found free grief counseling through NHS hospices helpful. She started it shortly after Neil’s death and took it up again after her friend died. With her grief becoming more manageable, she was able to regain a healthy weight by eating well, swimming, and walking in the fresh air.
“People think grief is just an emotional thing, but I believe we are a whole — our bodies, minds, and hearts — and grief can really take a toll on our bodies,” she says.