A broken heart can be fatal, new research suggests

Grief can cause inflammation that can kill, according to new research from Rice University in the US. The study, which has been published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinologym examines the impact of grief on human health.

The researchers conducted interviews and examined the blood of 99 people who spouses had recently died. They compared people who showed symptoms of elevated grief – such as pining for the deceased, difficulty moving on, a sense that life is meaningless and inability to accept the reality of the loss – to those who did not exhibit those behaviours.

The researchers discovered that widows and widowers with elevated grief symptoms suffered up to 17 per cent higher levels of bodily inflammation. And people in the top one-third of that group had a 53.4 per cent higher level of inflammation than the bottom one-third of the group who did exhibit those symptoms.

The study’s lead author, Chris Fagundes, said: ‘Previous research has shown that inflammation contributes to almost every disease in older adulthood. We also know that depression is linked to higher levels of inflammation, and those who lose a spouse are at considerably higher risk of major depression, heart attack, stroke and premature mortality. However, this is the first study to confirm that grief – regardless of people’s levels of depressive symptoms – can promote inflammation, which in turn can cause negative health outcomes.’

The study also suggests those who have been widowed are at higher risk of cardiovascular problems, bodily symptoms and premature mortality by comparing inflammation in bereaved individuals to matched controls.

Fagundes said: ‘This work shows who, among those who are bereaved, are at highest risk. Now that we know these two key findings, we can design interventions to target this risk factor in those who are most at risk through behavioural or pharmacological approaches.’