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Mature Focus: Broken heart syndrome

The recent sudden death of actress Debbie Reynolds, 84, just one day after the passing of her daughter, Carrie Fisher, has led many to question whether the grieving Reynolds could possibly have died of a “broken heart.”

The answer is yes, according to a study presented in December at an American Heart Association conference. In the weeks after losing a spouse or child, the bereaved are much more likely to experience rapid heartbeats and other potentially dangerous changes in heart rhythm.

The new study, led by Thomas Buckley of the University of Sydney Nursing School, included 78 people who had lost a spouse or child within the previous two weeks. They were tested using 24-hour heart monitors, questionnaires and other tools, then were re-examined six months later and were compared with a control group during both periods.

Immediately following their loss, grieving individuals had higher average heart rates, more episodes of rapid heartbeat and reductions in the normal variation in heart rate compared with people in the control group, along with greatly increased anxiety and depression. After six months, those in the bereaved group had returned to normal heart activity compared with the control group; their anxiety and depression also had diminished.

The initial changes are not necessarily a sign of underlying heart disease, Buckley said. On the other hand, for those who do have underlying risk factors, even short episodes of distressing feelings have been implicated in cardiac events. The bereavement-related heart changes seem to last for days, weeks or even months, which is “quite a long hazard period,” he added.

A study previously conducted by Buckley and several colleagues also showed that newly bereaved people experience reduced sleep and appetite, increases in morning levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher levels of anger.

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