The science that proves grief can harm both your body and your mind

Grief can have repercussions beyond its emotional toll. There is growing evidence that grief is linked to an increased risk of conditions ranging from heart disease and cancer to memory problems, digestive problems and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

Just this month, researchers found bereaved parents have an increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation, in which the heart beats irregularly and increases the risk of stroke.

Researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who examined data from parents of more than 800,000 children born between 1973 and 2016, concluded that bereaved parents “may benefit from increased support from family members and healthcare professionals”. “A broken heart breaks the heart,” is the simple conclusion of Dr. Dang Wei, an epidemiologist at the Karolinska Institute.

“We found that individuals who lost a close family member (e.g., a child, partner, parent, sibling) were at greater risk of atrial fibrillation, heart disease, myocardial infarction (heart attack), stroke, and heart failure than those who have not suffered the loss of a close family member,” he told Good Health.

It follows a study published last year in the journal JAMA Network Open that found that losing a parent as an adult increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.

There is growing evidence that grief is associated with an increased risk of physical illness

There is growing evidence that grief is associated with an increased risk of physical illness

The study, based on a million people in Sweden and Denmark, found that bereavement put people at a 41 percent increased risk of heart disease — the risk was highest in the first three months after the bereavement — and a 30 percent increase increased risk of heart disease stroke.

The researchers found the correlation independent of the parent’s cause of death (ie, there was no genetic link to the parent’s heart problem that caused the offspring’s heart problem).

The explanation for this association is that grief “can manifest itself as stress on the body, organ systems, and the immune system,” says Dr. Steven Allder, consultant neurologist at Re:Cognition Health, a private clinic in London that researches the effects of emotional trauma in the brain.

“That might explain why people get sick during the bereavement period,” he adds.

“The strong and painful emotions evoked by the loss of a loved one — possibly coupled with a lack of sleep and healthy routine — are interpreted by the brain as a stressful situation, causing it to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and start a fight elicits an -or-escape response in the body.’

While this stress response is designed to help us escape impending danger, a chronic state of stress can cause inflammation, which in turn can damage the immune system. This makes you more susceptible to recurring infections, as well as autoimmune diseases, where the immune system launches an attack on the body, leading to conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.

Cortisol’s effects are wide-ranging: “It can disrupt the normal functioning of every system in the body, including blood sugar regulation, metabolic function, and memory,” says Dr. all of them This is because cortisol suppresses non-urgent functions like your digestion.

Meanwhile, the release of adrenaline causes the body to increase heart and breathing rates.

Adrenaline rushes are thought to cause heart damage and could be linked to what’s known as broken heart syndrome (or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy), which is a sudden weakening of the muscle in the heart’s left ventricle, its main pumping chamber.

Because the left ventricle cannot contract, the bottom of the ventricle inflates outward.

It often occurs after bereavement, and about 90 percent of sufferers are women aged 50 and over, with one in 20 dying in hospital. In survivors, the heart’s shape and pumping ability usually return to normal within three months, but many experience long-term problems such as pain, rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath.

The greatest risk of a grief-related health problem is in the first three months after a loss, particularly of a spouse, says Dr. all of them

When Linda Aitchison lost her 16-year-old partner and the father of their then 13-year-old twin daughters in May 2016, her health rapidly deteriorated. Neil, a BBC journalist, was just 44 when he died of malignant melanoma.

One study found that people who have lost a close family member (e.g., a child, partner, parent, sibling) have a higher risk of developing heart problems

One study found that people who have lost a close family member (eg, a child, partner, parent, sibling) have a higher risk of heart problems

Within a week, distraught with grief, Linda was in aches and pains. Two weeks after his death, she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and then whooping cough. She also contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized overnight with an irregular heartbeat.

“I know now that grief did this to me,” she says. “I remember feeling the heartache of grief as if it were something physical,” recalls Linda, 54, a writer from Wolverhampton.

“I have not slept. I didn’t eat healthy. I got terrible whooping cough – twice a month. It turned into pneumonia and I couldn’t breathe. I felt my whole body shut down.”

Doctors also diagnosed an irregular heartbeat that eventually resolved on its own.

Then, in 2017, tragedy struck again when Linda’s best friend — her “rock” after the death of Neil — died very suddenly of lung cancer.

Again, Linda’s physical health suffered – her blood pressure soared, she caught every bug and gained weight. “I looked terrible and felt terrible,” she says.

While some people benefit from grief counseling, another, perhaps more surprising, tool to help with grief is exercise.

A study published in January in BMC Public Health, which took part in people who had experienced the death of a parent between the ages of 10 and 24, found that physical activity helped “mitigate grief and build resilience.”

Linda found the free bereavement advice available through NHS hospices helpful. She started doing it shortly after Neil’s death and picked it up again after her friend died. After her grief became more manageable, she was able to return to a healthy weight through eating healthy, swimming, and walking outdoors.

“People think that grief is just an emotional thing, but I believe that we are one whole – our body, our mind and our heart – and grief can really take a toll on our bodies,” she says. The science that proves grief can harm both your body and your mind

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