partner loss
The risk of atrial fibrillation is increased after the death of a partner Istock

Seeing one's partner die can increase the risk of atrial fibrillation for a year, scientists have warned. While previous studies had identified a link between severe psychological stress and different acute cardiovascular diseases, it is the first time that researchers have focused on this condition, characterised by irregular and often abnormally fast heart beats.

The study, published in Open Heart, a journal of the BMJ, looks at a large sample of people suffering from partner bereavement to assess their cardiovascular health. If they suffered from atrial fibrillation, the scientists measured how long this heart disturbance affected them. The prevalence of atrial fibrillation seemed more pronounced in people who had not expected the death of their loved-one.

41% more at risk

The scientists used Danish health registers to gather their data. They identified 88,612 cases of atrial fibrillation, confirmed by a hospital diagnosis, between the years 1995 and 2014. A further 886,120 healthy people were examined for control. In total, 17,478 cases and 168,940 controls had lost their partner.

After taking into account gender, other conditions, such as diabetes, and medication use, the scientists established that people who had lost a partner were at 41% greater risk of developing atrial fibrillation for the first time, in the 30 days after the death, than people who still had their partner.

A year after the death

The risk of developing atrial fibrillation was at its highest between eight and 14 days after the death but, after that, it gradually declined. The risk only lasted up for a year after the death, with the researchers finding out that risk of atrial fibrillation was similar for all the participants after that period of time.

They also noted that the probability of developing the condition was 57% more marked for people whose partners were healthy in the month before their death, than for people who were confronted with the death of an unhealthy partner whom they expected to die soon.

"The severely stressful life event of losing a partner was followed by a transiently increased risk of atrial fibrillation lasting for one year, especially for the least-predicted losses," the researchers concluded.