By Jaimie Dalessio
Scientists have found more evidence that the death of a loved one can be a two-pronged tragedy: the death itself, followed by an increased likelihood that those left behind will face their own health challenges as a result of the death. But while researchers can't fully explain why mourners face medical risks after loved ones die, they do offer advice for maintaining one's health.
A study released today in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that women were more likely to suffer a fatal heart attack four to six-and-a-half years after the death of a sibling, while men were more likely to die from a heart attack two to six-and-a-half years after a sibling's death. The health risk was particularly high if the sibling died from a heart attack.
An earlier study on how the death of a significant person in one's life affects the survivor's health by researchers at the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School found similar, but more immediate health impacts. Within a day of a loved one's death, heart attack risk was 21 times higher than normal, researchers found, and it remained elevated (6 times higher than normal) for the first week following the death.
Sometimes called broken heart syndrome, stress hormones released in the body following the death of a loved one can raise blood pressure, constrict small blood vessels and stimulate the heart -- all factors which can lead to a heart attack in the days and weeks that follow.
In the latest report, the researchers theorize that risk of fatal heart attack takes longer to appear in people who lose a sibling because the surviving siblings are more likely to get support from their (surviving) spouses and children, easing bereavement.
For the heart association study, researchers from Sweden, Finland and the United States analyzed data from Swedish national databases, covering more than 1.6 million adults in Sweden between age 40 and 69. They followed up for as long as 18 years after sibling death. It's the first large-scale evidence on fatal heart attacks related to adult sibling deaths, according to the report.
Coping After an Adult Sibling's Death
The association between fatal heart attack and sibling death might derive from unhealthy coping responses, according to the study authors. These include excessive smoking and alcohol, eating poorly and skipping exercise, which can hike a person's risk for heart disease over time.
While the researchers did not observe a shorter-term association between sibling death and fatal heart attacks -- therefore not much connection to broken heart syndrome -- mental stress following sibling death may also play a role by taxing the immune system.
A third variable involves genetic similarities and shared childhood experiences. "More detailed information from medical records, shared childhood social environment and family characteristics, and data on personal and relational characteristics is required to uncover the mechanisms causing the association between sibling death and heart attack," lead study author Mikael Rostila, PhD, an associate professor at Stockholm University/Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, said in a release from the American Heart Association.
To protect your heart as best you can while dealing with grief following the death of a sibling, here are some things you can do:
- Know your family history. If you have a first-degree relative with heart disease (a parent or sibling), your risk is higher. Especially if you have a sibling who died from a heart attack, talk to other relatives and your doctor to get a clear picture of your family-associated risk.
- Keep up healthy habits. The emotional toll of losing a loved one might make you less likely to eat healthy, sleep well and exercise often and more likely to smoke and drink alcohol in excess, so try to pay extra attention to taking care of yourself.
- Reach out for support. Don't be afraid to ask family and friends for help.
- Brush up on the signs of a heart attack. It's always good to know the signs of a heart attack, but especially important if you might be at a higher risk.
- Stay in touch with your doctor. To remain on top of your own physical and emotional health, keep your doctor in the loop. If you experience chest pain, stomach pain, shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness or sudden, cold sweats, don't assume it's the result of stress. Talk to your doctor about it.
"Sibling Deaths Can Lead to a Double Loss" originally appeared on Everyday Health.