The internet is filled with stories of couples passing away within hours of one another, and new research might help explain this somber (but strangely comforting) phenomenon. Researchers from Rice University found that people who have trouble dealing with the loss of a loved one experience heightened levels of inflammation — which can significantly increase their risk of mortality from basically all causes — whereas those who easily make peace with these unfortunate circumstances remain relatively unfazed.
Inflammation happens when white blood cells — which normally work to protect our bodies from being infected by foreign invaders — misdirect their defensive attacks toward our own healthy tissues (a response that can be triggered by high levels of stress). How such inflammation actually works to deteriorate our organs remains at least somewhat unclear; however, evidence shows that, when inflammatory cells linger in blood vessels, they promote the buildup of dangerous plaque and blood clots, which can result in heart attacks or strokes.
“Previous research has shown that inflammation contributes to almost every disease in older adulthood,” lead author Chris Fagundes, assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice University, said in a statement. “We also know that depression is linked to higher levels of inflammation, and those who lose a spouse are at considerably higher risk of major depression, heart attack, stroke and premature mortality. However, this is the first study to confirm that grief — regardless of people’s levels of depressive symptoms — can promote inflammation, which in turn can cause negative health outcomes.”
To come to this conclusion, Fagundes and his team interviewed nearly 100 widows and widowers who recently lost their spouses, then classified the participants by how effectively they were coping with said death. The researchers also took blood samples from the participants, and found that those who were having more trouble accepting the loss of their loved ones had significantly higher levels of inflammation compared to those who were more successfully navigating the grieving process. In fact, participants who were having the hardest time had at least 50 percent higher levels of inflammation than those with the fewest difficulties.
Fagundes also recently published different research showing that individuals who lost a loved one were much more likely to suffer from heart problems, finding themselves up to 41 percent more likely to also die within six months after said death. This latest research points to inflammation as the possible cause of both these cardiovascular issues and the increased mortality that these heart-broken people experience.
All of which might help scientists better understand a rare phenomenon called broken-heart syndrome, a temporary condition that disrupts normal pumping function in one area of the heart. Like the inflammation mentioned above, this condition is usually triggered by physical or emotional stress, like the death of a loved one. For instance, this 2012 case report chronicles the strange case of one woman experiencing the syndrome:
“A 69-year-old woman with a past history of hypertension was referred to our emergency department with complaints of dizziness and malaise and a transient pre-syncope attack [near-fainting that occurs due to cardiac arrest] following an intense emotional stress due to witnessing her sister’s death.”
But while most victims (including the woman mentioned above) recover when provided with immediate medical attention, another new study found that some (approximately one in 10) can develop particularly deadly complications. Worse yet, the risk of death for broken-heart syndrome patients with this complication — known as cardiogenic shock, which happens when the heart is suddenly unable to pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the body — remains high not only while in the hospital, but also for years afterwards: Those who develop cardiogenic shock are 23.5 percent more likely to pass away in the hospital and 2.5 percent more likely to die within five years of the initial event.
“Beyond the higher short-term mortality, for the first time this analysis found people who experienced broken-heart syndrome complicated by cardiogenic shock were at high risk of death years later, underlining the importance of careful long-term follow-up especially in this patient group,” study author Christian Templin, head of acute cardiac care at the University Heart Center at University Hospital, said in a press release.
Essentially then, you should never fall in love again.