Common medications may lower risk of ‘broken heart syndrome’ during bereavement

Could certain medications help prevent heart attack brought on by grief? (Getty)

Though it might sound far-fetched, suffering from a broken heart can actually have some serious health implications.

While the emotional pain might take time to heal, recent research may have found a treatment to alleviate the cardiac risk factors associated with broken heart syndrome.

While most people do gradually adjust to the loss of a loved one, there is an increase in heart attacks among those who are grieving, but a study, published in the American Heart Journal, has suggested a combination of Aspirin and beta blockers could reduce the cardiac risks that ramp up during periods of bereavement. 

Researchers from the University of Sydney evaluated 85 participants who lost either a spouse or a child two weeks before the study.

Read more: Heart attack gender gap is causing 'needless deaths of women', charity warns

Researchers have been investigating whether common medications could help prevent broken heart syndrome (Getty)

Over the course of six weeks, 42 participants received low doses of a beta blocker (medications used to treat hypertension and irregular heartbeats), as well as aspirin. The other 43 received a placebo. 

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,” said lead author, Professor Geoffrey Tofler.

As well as their heart health the researchers 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,” said Professor Tofler.

“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.”

The authors acknowledge that further, larger long-term studies are needed, but the findings could provide some encouragement for the consideration of this preventative strategy among those they consider to be at high risk associated with early bereavement.

Read more: Skipping breakfast could lead to increased heart attack risk

What is broken heart syndrome?

According to the British Heart Foundation, broken heart syndrome occurs when the heart muscle becomes suddenly weakened and stops pumping blood to the body as well as it should.

“The stress that grief causes can put a serious strain on the body, particularly the heart,” Dr Diana Gall from www.doctor-4-u.co.uk.

“The release of stress hormones can raise blood pressure and cause physiological changes to the blood vessels and heart muscle cells, this is known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or 'broken heart syndrome'.

Dr Gall says when this happens it makes it difficult for the heart to pump effectively which can induce symptoms that are similar to a heart attack such as chest pain and shortness of breath.

“This condition is usually temporary and brought on by a stressful event such as the death of a loved one, but in some people whose health is already compromised, this could be fatal,” she adds.

Bereavement could put pressure on the heart (Getty)

So could taking medication help to prevent broken heart syndrome, as the research suggests? 

“Taking heart medication such as beta-blockers in the first few days or weeks of grief may help with the shock and stress and prevent the symptoms associated with this,” Dr Gall says.

“It may protect the heart during this stressful time by controlling blood pressure and heart rate, and preventing any damage to the heart.”

However, Dr Gall points out that not everyone is suitable for this type of medication and there are side effects such as fatigue, dizziness, and in rare cases depression which is not appropriate for someone who may already be in a depressive state as a result of grief.

“If a person is already taking antidepressants there is also a risk of beta-blockers interacting with these medications and the two shouldn't be taken together,” she adds.

Dr Gall says there is lots to consider when it comes to taking beta-blockers and as it stands in the UK, beta-blockers are only available on prescription for angina, heart failure, heart attack, high blood pressure, arterial fibrillation, and in some cases, anxiety disorders.

“It's not currently prescribed for broken heart syndrome, however, if blood tests and exams such as an ECG reveal signs of stress-induced cardiomyopathy you may be prescribed heart medication such as beta-blockers to prevent further damage,” she explains.

“As the symptoms of this condition can be similar to a heart attack you must call 999 if you experience chest pain or shortness of breath,” Dr Gall adds.

As with taking any medication always consult a doctor before starting a new treatment.