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Bereavement linked to increased risk of atrial fibrillation

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People who experience the shock death of a partner are at greater risk of developing an irregular heartbeat, suggests new research.

Findings published in the journal Open Heart indicate the risk of developing atrial fibrillation following a bereavement is greatest among the under 60s and when the loss of a partner is least expected.

“This risk appears even greater the more sudden the death or younger that person is”

Maureen Talbot

Researchers from Denmark analysed information on more than 88,600 people newly diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat between 1995 and 2014 and a control group of more than 886,000 healthy people.

They looked at several factors that might influence the risk of atrial fibrillation – which is itself linked to stroke and heart failure – including bereavement.

The results suggested the risk of developing an irregular heartbeat for the first time was 41% higher among those had been bereaved than among those who had not experienced such as loss.

Management of atrial fibrillation

Management of atrial fibrillation

The risk appeared greatest eight to 14 days after the death of a partner and then decreased gradually, returning to normal after about a year.

People under the age of 60 were more than twice as likely to develop atrial fibrillation if they had been bereaved.

The risk also seemed greatest when the death came as a shock. People whose partners were relatively healthy in the month before death were 57% more likely to develop an irregular heartbeat than people whose partners were not healthy and expected to die soon.

While the researchers could draw no firm conclusions about cause and effect, nurse experts noted there was growing evidence that highly stressful events could increase the risk of stroke or heart attack.

British Heart Foundation

Maureen Talbot

Maureen Talbot

“The bereavement of a partner is a devastating event in anyone’s life but the effect can be even worse when a death is sudden or premature,” said Maureen Talbot, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation.

“Our research has shown how emotional stress can have an adverse effect on the heart but this study also highlights a significant physical effect – a greater risk of developing atrial fibrillation when recently bereaved,” she said. “This risk appears even greater the more sudden the death or younger that person is.”

She added: “Studies to increase understanding of the cause of this finding are needed but it is important to ensure the newly bereaved, regardless of their age, are monitored and supported by their loved ones and to see their GP if they experience any symptoms.”


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