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It turns out, you can die of a broken heart. How grief can impact your physical health

By Mark Brodie
Published: Tuesday, November 14, 2023 - 12:55pm
Updated: Thursday, November 16, 2023 - 12:49pm

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Grieving the death of a loved one can be extremely difficult for us mentally and emotionally. But new research shows it can also negatively impact our physical health — specifically in heart function and blood pressure.

Mary-Frances O’Connor is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona and author of "The Grieving Brain." She worked on this research and joined The Show to talk about it.

Mary-Frances O
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Mary-Frances O'Connor

Interview highlights

What are some of the key takeaways for you from this research, connecting grief to physical health?

Well, I was so fascinated for many years by the idea of dying of a broken heart. And although we say that, we think that's sort of a metaphor, it turns out that that's empirically actually the case. So, for example, a man in the first six months after the death of his wife is almost twice as likely to himself die, as compared to a married man during that same period of time. So that's quite an increase in risk. And this research that we were doing was really trying to figure out the mechanisms for why that might be.

Why does that happen? Why does grief affect our heart function the way it does?

Well, it turns out that grieving is incredibly stressful. So we think about the emotional aspect of grief. If you think of a grieving person, you think of someone who might be sad or anxious, but it's a physical experience as well.
So we know from research previous to the studies that we've been doing that your heart rate goes up for a little while. Overall, people's blood pressure tends to go up a little bit for the first few months.

And so in our study, we were very curious about whether the risk is the same all the time? Or are there particular parts of the day that are more risky than others? And we had the idea that perhaps it is during a wave of grief that we're seeing the most stress on the heart.

How do you define a wave of grief? A lot of people who have gone through grief kind of have a feeling of it. But how do you try to quantify that for purposes of a research study?

We really wanted to find a way to have a bereaved participant in our study experience a wave of grief while they were in the laboratory. So you can think of the way that a cardiologist — the cardiologist doesn't just measure your heart rate all the time, 24 hours a day. Although, they might do that, but they might also do a treadmill stress test. And so we developed what you might think of as an emotional stress test.

We had bereaved participants come to the lab and hooked them up with an EKG. And then we asked them about a time that they had been feeling really alone since the death of their loved one. So you can understand that for many people that evokes a wave of grief. And then with this sort of standardized set of questions, we kept them in that feeling for about 10 minutes so that we could see how their, their heart reacted and recovered.

Did you find that, otherwise, when they were maybe experiencing not a wave of grief but a low level grief, did their heart rate go back to normal? Was their blood pressure back in a normal range?

So we found that — this may not surprise people who've experienced grief — but we did find that during a wave of grief in general, on average people's blood pressure did go up. And it might surprise people to know that it went up as much as if they were doing moderate exercise, even though they're just sitting in a chair talking to us. But the emotional impact means that their blood pressure goes up like they were exercising.

But that it wasn't actually the most interesting part of the study. What was most interesting was when people came in, we gave them a standard questionnaire asking about their grief symptoms — what their grief severity was like. And what we discovered was those who came in with the highest grief severity also experience the greatest increase in blood pressure during that wave of grief. And the reason that's so important is it helps us to identify who might be experiencing the most stress on their heart.

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