The Heartache of Bereavement Can Be Fatal in Heart Failure

The stress of losing a family member can hasten the death of patients with heart failure (HF), suggests a large Swedish study that points to the need for greater integration of psychosocial risk factors in the treatment of HF.

The adjusted relative risk (RR) of dying was nearly 30% higher among bereaved patients with HF (1.29; 95% CI, 1.27-1.30) and slightly higher for those grieving the loss of more than one family member (RR, 1.35).

The highest risk was in the first week after the loss (RR, 1.78) but persisted after 5 years of follow-up (RR, 1.30).

“Heart failure is a very difficult condition and has a very poor prognosis comparable to many, many cancers,” senior author Krisztina László, PhD, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, commented to theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology. “So it’s important for us to be aware of these increased risks and to understand them better.”

The early risk for death could be related to stress-induced cardiomyopathy, or Takotsubo syndrome, as well as activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, and sympathetic nervous system, she explained. Higher long-term risks may reflect chronic stress, leading to poorly managed disease and an unhealthy lifestyle.

“If we understand better the underlying mechanisms maybe we can give more specific advice,” László said. “At this stage, I think having an awareness of the risk and trying to follow patients or at least not let them fall out of usual care, asking questions, trying to understand what their needs are, maybe that is what we can do well.”

A recent position paper by the European Association of Preventive Cardiology points out that psychosocial risk factors, like depression and social isolation, can exacerbate heart failure and calls for better integration of psychosocial factors in the treatment of patients with chronic HF.

“We don’t do a very good job of it, but I think they are very important,” observed Stuart D. Russell, MD, a professor of medicine who specializes in advanced HF at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and was not involved in the study.

“When we hear about a spouse dying, we might call and give condolences, but it’s probably a group of patients that for the next 6 months or so we need to watch more closely and see if there are things we can impact both medically as well as socially to perhaps prevent some of this increase in mortality,” he told Medscape Cardiology.

Although several studies have linked bereavement with adverse health outcomes, this is just one of two studies to look specifically at its role in HF prognosis, László noted. A 2013 study of 66,000 male veterans reported that widowers had nearly a 38% higher all-cause mortality risk than did married veterans.

The present study extends those findings to 490,527 patients in the Swedish Heart Failure Registry between 2000 and 2018 and/or in the Swedish Patient Register with a primary diagnosis of HF between 1987 and 2018. During a mean follow-up of 3.7 years, 12% of participants had a family member die, and 383,674 participants died.

Results showed the HF mortality risk increased 10% after the death of a child, 20% with the death of a spouse/partner, 13% with a sibling’s death, and 5% with the death of a grandchild.

No increased risk was seen after the death of a parent, which is likely owed to a median patient age of about 75 years and “is in line with our expectations of the life cycle,” László said.

An association between bereavement and mortality risk was observed in cases of loss caused by cardiovascular disease (RR, 1.34) and other natural causes (RR, 1.27) but also in cases of unnatural deaths, such as suicide (RR, 1.13).

The overall findings were similar regardless of left ventricular ejection fraction and New York Heart Association functional class and were not affected by sex or country of birth.

Russell agreed that the death of a parent would be expected among these older patients with HF but said that “if the mechanism of this truly is kind of this increased stress hormones and Takotsubo-type mechanism, you’d think it would be worse if it was your kid that died. That shocked me a bit.”

The strong association between mortality and the loss of a spouse or partner was not surprising, given that they’re an important source of mutual social support, he added.

“If it’s a 75-year-old whose spouse dies, we need to make sure that we have the children’s phone number or other people that we can reach out to and say, ‘Can you check on them?'” he said. “And we need to make sure that somebody else is coming in with them because I would guess that probably at least half of what patients hear in a clinic visit goes in one ear and out the other and it’s going to make that much better. So we need to find who that new support person is for the patient.”

Asked whether there are efforts underway to incorporate psychosocial factors into current US guidelines, Russell replied, “Certainly within heart failure, I don’t think we’re really discussing it and, that may be the best part of this paper. It really makes us think about a different way of approaching these older patients.”

László said that future studies are needed to investigate whether less severe sources of stress may also contribute to poor HF prognosis.

“In our population, 12% of patients were affected, which is quite high, but there are patients with heart failure who experience on a daily basis other sources of stress, which are less severe but chronic and affect large numbers,” she said. “This may also have important public health implications and will be an important next step.”

The authors note that they were unable to eliminate residual confounding by genetic factors or unmeasured socioeconomic-, lifestyle-, or health-related factors shared by family members. Other limitations are limited power to detect a modest effect in some of the subanalyses and that the findings may be generalizable only to countries with social and cultural contexts and health-related factors similar to those of Sweden.

The study was supported by grants from the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research, the Karolinska Institutet’s Research Foundation, and the China Scholarship Council. László is also supported by a grant from the Heart and Lung Foundation. All other authors and Russell report no relevant financial relationships.

J Am Coll Cardiol HF. Published July 6, 2022. Abstract

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