Thursday 18 December 2014

How the loss of a loved one can put your own life on the line

Ever heard the phrase, 'he died of a broken heart' and dismissed it as a figure of speech? It's time to think again, says Amy Vickers

They lived happily married for 55 years. The day after he died, she suffered a stroke, followed by a heart attack, and then she joined him. "She died of a broken heart" said their daughter, model Christie Brinkley, trying to explain how someone who had earned the nickname 'Miracle Marge' after surviving eight strokes, three heart attacks and two major brain surgeries, had lost her fight for life.

The recent obituary of Marjorie Brinkley read: "Her heart never survived losing the love of her life."

Broken heart syndrome is the medically accepted term to explain the strain put on the organ after the death of a loved one.

A 'perfect storm' of stress, lack of sleep and forgetting to take regular medication puts mourners at increased risk in the days and weeks after bereavement.

Studies show that severe emotional distress, such as the kind that is experienced after a the death of a loved one, can bring on heart failure or heart-attack-like symptoms.

The condition usually resolves within weeks, with no lasting damage – but in rare cases, particularly if there is a pre-existing medical condition, it can prove fatal.

Contrary to popular belief, women are up to nine times more likely to suffer from the condition than men, a 2011 study analysing more than 10,000 people across the US found.

The findings, reported to the American Heart Association showed that those older than 55 were 4.6 times more likely to develop the condition than younger women and scarily, in about one in three cases, the syndrome is serious enough to kill.

"The new finding from this large sample is that there is such a sharp divide at the age of 55 for women," says Dr Abhishek Deshmukh, who conducted the study at the University of Arkansas.

"One theory is that hormones play a role. Men may be able to handle stress better because they have more adrenaline receptors in their hearts than women do."

Dr Angie Brown, medical director of the Irish Heart Foundation said: "We're not 100pc sure what causes stress-induced cardio-myopathy – also known as broken-heart syndrome – but it seems to be that the stress stimulates the release of hormones such as adrenaline and nor-adrenaline, the effect of which is to deprive the left ventricle (the heart's pumping mechanism) of oxygen and cause a sudden temporary weakening of the heart muscle.

This stuns the heart and it can't work properly.

"It appears to be more commonly seen in post-menopausal women. Often, there is a history of a recent severe emotional or physical stress.

"When it happens, the symptoms can include chest pain and shortness of breath, so patients are treated for a heart attack until it is proven otherwise."

A study earlier in 2012 by immunity experts at the University of Birmingham found biological evidence to suggest that bereavement lowers the immune system, putting sufferers at the mercy of life-threatening infections.

The researchers found that this kind of emotional stress causes a drop in the efficiency of white blood cells that are needed to fight cancer and pneumonia, which is a major cause of death in older adults.

TO stand back powerless and watch two parents depart within a short space of each other is almost too much to bear, but perhaps there is some comfort to be found in their parents being reunited. Brenda Ryan* lost her parents within a month of each other.

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