The science that proves grief can damage your body as well as your mind
Grief may have effects that go beyond its emotional toll. There’s growing evidence linking grief with an increased risk of conditions from heart disease and cancer to memory problems, digestive issues and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Just this month, researchers found that bereaved parents are at an increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation, where the heart beats erratically, increasing the risk of a stroke.
The researchers, at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who looked at data from the parents of more than 800,000 children born between 1973 and 2016, concluded that bereaved parents ‘may benefit from increased support from family members and health professionals’. ‘Broken heart breaks the heart,’ is the simple conclusion of Dr Dang Wei, an epidemiologist at the Karolinska Institute.
‘We found that individuals who lost a close family member (e.g. a child, partner, parent, sibling) had higher risks of atrial fibrillation, heart disease, myocardial infarction (heart attack), stroke and heart failure than those who hadn’t lost a close family member,’ he told Good Health.
It follows research published in the journal JAMA Network Open last year, which found that losing a parent as an adult raised the risk of heart disease and stroke.
here’s growing evidence linking grief with an increased risk of physical conditions
The study, based on a million people in Sweden and Denmark, found that bereavement put people at a 41 per cent increased risk of heart disease — the risk was highest in the first three months after the loss — and a 30 per cent increased risk of stroke.
The scientists found the correlation irrespective of the cause of the parent’s death (i.e. it wasn’t a genetic link to the parent’s heart problems that was causing the offspring’s heart problem).
The explanation for this link is that grieving ‘can manifest as stress on the body, organ systems and immune system’, says Dr Steven Allder, a consultant neurologist at Re:Cognition Health, a private clinic in London, who is researching the effects of emotional trauma on the brain.
‘It perhaps explains why people get sick during the grieving period,’ he adds.
‘The strong and painful emotions unleashed by the loss of a loved one — potentially coupled with a lack of sleep and healthy routine — are interpreted by the brain as a stressful situation, causing it to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, triggering a fight-or-flight response in the body.’
While this stress response is designed to help us escape from imminent danger, a chronic state of stress can cause inflammation that, in turn, can damage the immune system. This makes you more susceptible to recurrent infections, as well as autoimmune conditions, where the immune system launches an attack on the body, resulting in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.
The impact of cortisol is broad: ‘It can disrupt the normal functioning of every system in the body, including blood sugar regulation, metabolic function and memory,’ says Dr Allder.This is because cortisol suppresses non-emergency functions such as your digestion.
Meanwhile, the release of adrenaline prompts the body to increase heart and respiratory rate.
Adrenaline surges are thought to cause heart damage and could be linked to so-called broken heart syndrome (or takotsubo cardiomyopathy), where there is a sudden weakening of the muscle in the heart’s left ventricle, its main pumping chamber.
Because the left ventricle is unable to contract, the bottom of the ventricle balloons outwards.
It often occurs after a bereavement, and around 90 per cent of patients are women aged 50 or over, with one in 20 dying in hospital as a result. In survivors, the heart’s shape and pumping capacity usually return to normal within three months, but many suffer long-term problems such as pain, palpitations and breathlessness.
The biggest danger period for experiencing a grief-related health problem comes in the first three months following a loss, especially of a spouse, says Dr Allder.
In May 2016, when Linda Aitchison lost her partner of 16 years and the father of their then 13-year-old twin daughters, her health took a rapid turn for the worse. Neil, a BBC journalist, was just 44 when he died from malignant melanoma.
A study found that individuals who lost a close family member (e.g. a child, partner, parent, sibling) had higher risks of experiencing heart problems
Within a week, Linda, distraught with grief, suffered aches and pains. Two weeks after his death, she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and then whooping cough. She also developed pneumonia and was hospitalised overnight with an irregular heartbeat.
‘I now know that grief did this to me,’ she says. ‘I remember feeling the heartbreak of grief as if it was something physical,’ recalls Linda, 54, a writer from Wolverhampton.
‘I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating healthily. I developed terrible whooping cough — twice in a month. This turned into pneumonia and I couldn’t breathe. I felt my whole body shutting down.’
Doctors also diagnosed an erratic heartbeat, which eventually resolved by itself.
Then, in 2017, tragedy struck again when Linda’s best friend —her ‘rock’ after Neil passed away — died very suddenly of lung cancer.
Again, Linda’s physical health suffered — her blood pressure rocketed, she picked up every bug around and gained weight. ‘I looked and felt dreadful,’ she says.
While some people benefit from grief counselling, another perhaps more surprising tool for helping with grief is exercise.
A study published in BMC Public Health in January, involving people who’d experienced the death of a parent when aged between ten and 24, found that physical activity helped ‘alleviate grief outcomes and build resilience’.
Linda found free grief counselling via NHS hospices helpful. She started it soon after Neil’s death and took it up again after her friend died. With her grief becoming more manageable, she was then able to get back to a healthy weight by eating well, swimming and walking in the fresh air.
‘People think grief is just an emotional thing, but I believe we are a whole — our body, minds and our hearts — and grief can really take its toll on our bodies,’ she says.