17 July 2009
Emotional stress in bereavement may contribute not only to increased risk of depression, but also raise an individual’s risk of cardiovascular events.
Australian researchers evaluated psychological and behavioural changes in 62 bereaved and 50 non-bereaved individuals recruited from 5 Sydney hospitals (Intern Med J 2009; 39: 370-78).
Acutely bereaved individuals evaluated at 2 weeks had symptoms of depression more than 4 times higher than the non-bereaved.
They also had higher levels of cortisol (the ‘stress’ hormone produced by the adrenal glands), reduced appetite and lower total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (‘bad’ cholesterol) than the non-bereaved.
Loss of appetite and reduced cholesterol levels suggested changes to lipid levels were not responsible for the increased cardiovascular risk, they added.
Increased alcohol consumption was found to be an independent predictor of increased cortisol at the acute stage. By 6 months, cortisol levels had not reduced in the bereaved individuals. Symptoms of anxiety and anger were also higher in the acutely bereaved.
Being less prepared for death, having reduced sleep time and being younger were all independent predictors of higher acute depression symptoms.
The authors said the increased symptoms of depression, anxiety and anger, together with reduced sleep might contribute to the increased cardiovascular risk associated with bereavement.
Psychologist Christopher Hall, director of the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement in Melbourne, said: ‘the increased rate of infarct [heart attack] can’t be explained just through natural occurrence. There is certainly an increased risk.’
He said one of the strongest predictors of poor outcomes was insomnia.
Last Reviewed: 17 July 2009