Losing a sibling greatly the raises the risk of dying from a heart attack, especially if the sister or brother died from cardiovascular problems, new research shows.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found the increased heart risk is most evident years after the death of a sibling, suggesting healthcare providers should follow bereaved siblings and watch for signs of psycho-social stress that can lead to heart attack.
"Death of a family member is so stressful that the resulting coping responses could lead to a heart attack," said lead researcher Mikael Rostila, an associate professor at Stockholm University/Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. "But our results suggest that this association between the loss of a sibling and having a heart attack is more likely to occur some years after bereavement."
For the study, researchers tracked health information from a database of more than 1.6 million 40- to 69-year-olds in Sweden to identify associations between loss of an adult sister or brother with heart attack and death in surviving siblings up to 18 years after their losses. The results showed:
- Surviving women were 25 percent and men 15 percent more likely to die from heart attack after the death of a sibling, compared to people who had not lost a sibling.
- No notable increased risk of heart attack occurred immediately after their siblings died. But increased risk of death from heart attack lasted up to six and a half years after the death of a sibling among women and men.
- If the sibling died of heart attack, the risk of heart attack death in the following years rose 62 percent among women and 98 percent among men.
Rostila said poor coping responses, such as unhealthy lifestyles, may be the culprit in the increased mortality risks, noting chronic mental stress can lead to health consequences years after the loss of a sibling. But the researchers also said similar genetics or shared risk factors during childhood may be contributing factors.
"We might be able to prevent heart attacks and other heart-related conditions by treating these siblings early on and recommending stress management," Rostila said. "However, more detailed information from medical records, shared childhood social environment and family characteristics, and data on personal and relational characteristics is required to uncover the mechanisms causing the association between sibling death and heart attack."
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