When a close loved one dies, normal emotional trauma is accompanied by a greater risk of heart attack. But short-term preventive drug therapy may reduce the odds of experiencing this “broken heart,” say cardiologists.

Heart attack risk is highest in the days immediately following a death, and at four times normal risk from seven days to one month afterwards, said professor Geoffrey Tofler, MBBS, MB. This increased risk can last up to six months. 

Tofler and colleagues found that low daily doses of a beta blocker and aspirin for six weeks following a bereavement successfully reduced spikes in blood pressure and heart rate. There were also positive changes in blood clotting tendency, he reported.

The medications had no adverse effect on normal psychological responses to the event and in fact lessened anxiety and depression symptoms, said Tofler, a preventive cardiologist and professor at the University of Sydney, Australia.

“Bereavement following the death of a loved one is one of the most stressful experiences to which almost every human is exposed,” he explained. “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 researchers hope the findings will encourage clinicians to be on the lookout for cardiovascular and other health troubles in patients who have suffered a major loss.

“Our finding … is also a good reminder for clinicians to consider the well-being of the bereaved,” said co-investigator Thomas Buckley, MN, Ph.D.

The study was published in the American Heart Journal.