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Grieving can be hard on the heart

HARVARD HEALTH LETTER

Some events in life -- like the death of someone important to you -- are impossible to prepare for. If you find yourself mourning a spouse, a family member or a close friend, take time to take care of yourself. That's the bottom line from a new study by researchers at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

They found that a person's risk of having a heart attack skyrockets to 21 times its norm in the first day after the death of a beloved friend or family member. The heart attack rate remains eight times above normal during the first week, but then steadily declines over the course of a month.

The physiological explanation for these findings is that intense emotions can increase heart rate, blood pressure and the tendency for blood to clot -- all of which raise the risk of a heart attack.

Although it hasn't been proven, it's logical to assume that extra emotional and social support for grieving people would help diminish the heightened risk that this study uncovered.

The best overall approach is to make the kinds of healthy day-to-day choices that protect the heart -- exercising, eating healthfully and not smoking. That way, your heart will be better able to handle the emotional and physiological distress that comes with losing a loved one.

If you find yourself grieving the loss of someone close to you, take extra-good care of yourself: Do your best to maintain normal sleep and eating patterns, take your medication as prescribed and respond immediately to any heart attack symptoms such as chest pain.

Says study author Dr. Murray Mittleman: "We need to pay close attention to surviving family members after the death of someone close to them."

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