The Lack of a Youngster Takes a Bodily Toll on the Coronary heart
Losing a child is one of the most emotional experiences a parent can have. New research suggests it can literally damage the heart as well. The study found that a parent is at a greatly increased risk of a heart attack in the days following a child’s death, and the increased risk can persist for years.
The researchers used birth registers and medical records to examine 6,711,952 parents from Denmark and Sweden from 1973 to 2014. Among them, 126,522 had lost at least one child during this time. The study looked at the loss not only of infants and children, but also of adolescents and adult children up to the age of 29.
The scientists found that the death of a child was linked to a 21 percent increased risk of ischemic heart disease or decreased blood flow to the heart. The risk of a heart attack in the first week after death was more than three times higher than that of people who had not lost a child, and the risk was 20 to 40 percent higher over the length of the study. The association was also present when an adult child died.
Other studies suggest that the death of a spouse, sibling, or close friend in middle or old age increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, atrial fibrillation, and death. The risk seems to be particularly high in the months immediately following the loss. However, studies of the effects of child loss on parents’ heart health have been very limited.
This observational study, published in PLOS Medicine, was large and rigorous. The researchers monitored age, marital status, education, income, high blood pressure, and other factors that can affect risk for cardiovascular disease. They also considered such factors to be the cause of a child’s death. For example, the researchers found that parents were also linked to heart problems if the child’s death was due to unnatural causes – such as a car crash or other accident – suggesting that there was a family history of heart disease or others genetic factors are present The increased cardiovascular risk in the parents cannot be fully explained.
The study did not examine how the stress of extreme loss could damage the heart. However, the study’s lead author, Dang Wei, a PhD student at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, suggested several possible mechanisms.
“Stress activates the autonomic nervous system,” he said, which controls involuntary functions in our body like heart rate and blood pressure and “induces biological changes” that can increase cholesterol levels.
“Changes like this,” he added, “can trigger a heart attack.”
Bereavement can also trigger depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders that lead to alcohol abuse, substance abuse, smoking, and lifestyle habits that are also risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Erica S. Spatz, an adjunct professor of cardiovascular medicine at Yale who was not involved in the study, said the results are based on “pretty amazing data” that are only available in Scandinavian countries that provide detailed obstetrics and maintain health registers that span decades.
“The loss of a child plays out in every aspect of a patient’s life, including their cardiovascular health,” she said. “We need to look for a history of trauma, be it related to child death, racial discrimination, or a poor work environment – these are known factors that affect cardiovascular health.”
Senior author Krisztina D. Laszlo, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Karolinska Institute, said that while parents should know about the increased heart risk, it can be difficult to reach them with such information during the period of mourning.
“It’s a sensitive subject,” she said. “This is a very special kind of bereavement, one of the greatest stresses one can experience, and it is often associated with complex grief that does not resolve in the usual way.”
“You don’t want to burden these parents any more,” she continued, “by telling them about their cardiovascular risks.”
Still, it would be important that doctors, friends, and family members of someone who has lost a child look out for things like chest pain, shortness of breath, or other signs of heart problems or an impending heart attack.