RNSH cardiologist Professor Geoffrey Tofler has led a world-first study which found that common medications can reduce the risk of heart attack in those grieving a loved one.
Professor Tofler said while most people gradually adjust to the loss of a loved one, there is an increase in heart attacks and death among bereaved people, particularly those grieving a spouse or child.
“This risk can last up to six months and is at its highest in the first days following bereavement.
“Our study, involving the Kolling Institute, Royal North Shore and the University of Sydney, was the first clinical trial to show it is possible to reduce several cardiac risk factors during bereavement.”
85 spouses or parents were enrolled in the study within two weeks of losing a family member. Half the group received low daily doses of a beta blocker and aspirin for six weeks, while the other half were given placebos.
“The main finding was that the active medication successfully reduced blood pressure and heart rate, as well as demonstrating some positive change in blood clotting tendency,” said Professor Tofler.
“We were also 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.”
Co-investigator Associate Professor Tom Buckley said the study builds on the team’s work in this area.
“While beta blockers and aspirin have been commonly used long term to reduce cardiovascular risk, they have not previously been used in this way as a short-term preventative therapy during bereavement.
“Future studies are needed to assess if these medications could be used for other short periods of severe emotional stress such as after natural disasters, where currently there are no guidelines to inform clinicians,” he said.
Professor Tofler expressed gratitude to the participants whose loved ones died at Royal North Shore and the other Northern Sydney hospitals. He said the study required a major multidisciplinary effort and support from hospital staff.
The study co-authors were Marie-Christine Morel-Kopp, Monica Spinaze, Jill Dent, Christopher Ward, Sharon McKinley, Anastasia Mihailidou, Jennifer Havyatt, Victoria Whitfield, Roger Bartrop (dec), Judith Fethney, Holly Prigerson and Thomas Buckley.
The study has received international attention and been published in the prestigious American Heart Journal. It was funded by Heart Research Australia.