SYDNEY — What becomes of the brokenhearted? Losing a loved one, especially a spouse or child, is one of the most painful experiences of the human condition and initially puts people at higher risk for heart attacks and death. It turns out some common medications may help keep healthy hearts among those grieving a loss, a new study finds.
Researchers with the University of Sydney wanted to find out whether the same medications used in routine care for high-risk cardiac patients — beta blockers and aspirin — could also help in the short term for people going through the beginning stage of bereavement.
“The increased risk of heart attack can last up to six months,” says lead investigator Geoffrey Tofler, professor of Preventative Cardiology at the university’s Faculty of Medicine and Health and Senior Staff Cardiologist at Royal North Shore Hospital, in a statement. “It is highest in the first days following bereavement and remains at four times the risk between seven days to one month after the loss.”
The research team studied 85 spouses or parents who had lost family members within the last two weeks. The participants were split into two groups. For six weeks, a control group of 43 participants received placebos, while the other 42 participants were given low daily doses of a beta blocker and aspirin. Heart rate and blood pressure were strictly monitored on all participants, and blood tests determined any changes in blood clotting.
Researchers found that participants taking the medications once daily in low doses had fewer blood pressure and heart rate spikes and were less prone to blood clots.
The team was also concerned about the impact of the medications on the grieving process and carefully monitored grief reactions. “We were reassured that the medication had no adverse effect on the psychological responses, and indeed lessened symptoms of anxiety and depression,” says Tofler.
He says investigators were surprised to find that reduced blood pressure and lower anxiety levels continued even beyond the six-week clinical trial.
Researchers are excited about the implications of this study, which builds on their earlier work involving physical responses to bereavement. They would like to see wide-scale, long-term studies conducted to find out who could be helped most from this treatment during early bereavement.
Investigators also see other possibilities for beta blockers and aspirin.
“Future studies are needed to assess if these medications could be used for other short periods of severe emotional stress such as after natural disasters or mass bereavement where currently there are no guidelines to inform clinicians,” suggests co-investigator Tom Buckley, associate professor at the university’s Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery.
Investigators caution that anyone experiencing cardiac symptoms should address this with a health care provider before taking any medication.
Study results are published in the American Heart Journal.