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The Physical and Mental Health Impacts of Grief: What Science Tells Us

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Various studies provide increasing evidence that grief has consequences beyond emotional harm, as it can increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, memory problems, digestive problems, and autoimmune disease.

More recently, researchers have found that bereaved parents are at increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation, in which the heart beats erratically, increasing the risk of stroke.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have concluded that those who have lost a close family member (such as a child, partner, parent or sibling) have a higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation, heart disease, myocardial infarction (heart attack). , stroke and heart failure, compared with those who have not lost any close family members.

This follows a study published in the journal JAMA Network Open last year that found that adults who have lost a parent have an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

A study of one million people in Sweden and Denmark found that bereavement increased the risk of heart disease by 41%, the risk was higher in the first three months after the loss, and the risk of cardiovascular disease increased by 30%. iron.

The scientists found this link regardless of whether the parents had a genetic cause for the heart problems.

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

“This may explain why people get sick during the grieving period,” he adds.

The intense and painful feelings caused by the loss of a loved one, potentially accompanied by sleep deprivation and a healthy routine, are interpreted by the brain as stressful, causing the release of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, causing the body to fight. “or flight” response (an internal reaction to stress that causes changes in physiology to help him cope with stressful situations).

While this stress response is designed to help us avoid imminent danger, a chronic state of stress can cause inflammation, which in turn can damage the immune system.

This makes you more susceptible to frequent infections as well as autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system attacks the body, leading to conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.

“The impact of cortisol is wide-ranging: it can disrupt the normal functioning of every system in the body, including blood sugar regulation, metabolic function and memory. This is because cortisol suppresses non-emergency functions such as digestion,” explains Dr. Alder.

At the same time, the release of adrenaline causes the body to increase its heart rate and breathing rate.

The surge of adrenaline is thought to cause damage to the heart and may be associated with what is known as broken heart syndrome (or takotsubo cardiomyopathy), where there is a sudden weakness of the heart’s left ventricular muscle, the heart’s main pumping chamber. .

Since the left ventricle is unable to contract, the lower part of the ventricle is everted outwards.

It often occurs after a bereavement, and about 90% of patients are women aged 50 or over, resulting in one in 20 deaths in the hospital. In survivors, the shape and pumping capacity of the heart usually returns to normal within three months, but many suffer from long-term problems such as pain, heart palpitations and shortness of breath.

Source: Daily Mail

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