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Lowering the risk of a ‘broken heart’ following bereavement using common treatment

Reducing the risk of heart attack in the early stages of a bereavement with a common medication has been the focus of new research by the University of Sydney.

Professor Geoffrey Tofler, leading the study published in the American Heart Journal, said that there is an increased risk of heart attack and death among bereaved people, particularly those grieving a spouse or child.

The randomised clinical trial looked at a total of 85 people, with the oldest being 85 years of age and the average being 66 years, and showed that it is possible to reduce several cardiac risk factors during this time, without adversely affecting the grieving process.

“We already knew from a previous study that following bereavement there are often increases in heart rate, blood pressure and in measures of blood clotting, as well as increases in symptoms of anxiety and depression,” Tofler said.

“However, there have been no interventions to address this with the goal of lowering cardiac risk, so we aimed to provide this with an approach that does not adversely affect the grief process.”

Forty-two participants received low daily doses of a beta blocker and aspirin for six weeks, while 43 were given placebos. Heart rate and blood pressure were carefully monitored, and blood tests assessed blood clotting changes.

“The main finding was that the active medication, used in a low dose once a day, successfully reduced spikes in blood pressure and heart rate, as well as demonstrating some positive change in blood clotting tendency,” Tofler said.

The investigators also carefully monitored the grief reaction of participants.

“We were reassured that the medication had no adverse effect on the psychological responses, and indeed lessened symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“Encouragingly, and to our surprise, reduced levels of anxiety and blood pressure persisted even after stopping the six weeks of daily beta blocker and aspirin.”

While advocating for the treatment to be considered as a potential heart health preventative therapy, Tofler also highlighted the importance of attention to the health of a person following a bereavement, as well as for awareness of it amongst family and friends.

“Social support is important at this time and any health symptoms should be brought to the attention of a health professional,” he said.

Associate Professor Thomas Buckley, co-investigator on the study from the University of Sydney Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery, said: “While beta blockers and aspirin have been commonly used long term to reduce cardiovascular risk, they have not previously been used in this way as a short-term preventative therapy during bereavement.”

Dr Holly Prigerson, co-director of the Center for Research on End-of-Life Care at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, underlined the importance of the study as it shows ways to improve the physical and mental health of at-risk bereaved people.

“It is a preventive intervention that is potentially practice-changing, using inexpensive, commonly available medicines,” she said.

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