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Partner loss can lead to disorders in the heart rhythm of the bereaved

A new study from Aarhus University shows that people who have recently lost their partner have an increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation (an irregular heart beat) for up to a year following the loss. The greatest risk is seen in bereaved partners who are under sixty years of age and experience an unexpected death.

A new, major observation study from Aarhus University now shows that there may be a correlation between grief-related stress and problems with heart rhythm in the form of atrial fibrillation, which increases the risk of strokes and heart problems. The new research results have just been published in the international scientific journal Open Heart

Several previous scientific studies have indicated that stressful life events can increase the risk of heart problems, but it has not previously been established that stress can trigger atrial fibrillation. 

Persons under the age of sixty appear to be particularly vulnerable, and the risk is considerably higher if the partner has been fit and healthy in the months prior to death and if the loss is unexpected. By contrast, the researchers have not found an increased risk of developing heart problems in bereaved partners in cases where the deceased partner had been seriously (terminal) ill.

Increased risk for a year after the loss

In the new study researchers have found an increased risk of developing irregular heart rhythm for up to one year after the bereavement in persons who have recently lost their partner, when compared to a control group that had not been exposed to a similar loss. The period between 8 and 14 days after the death appears to comprise the greatest risk, after which it gradually falls to a normal level.

The results suggest that sudden acute stress can disturb the natural hormone balance and affect an otherwise normal heart rhythm. Many people with atrial fibrillation often also mention stress as a triggering factor.

"The new study confirms that there is a correlation between our mental and physical condition and physical health – that body and mind affect one another. However, we do not know precisely which mechanisms cause this correlation in the case of atrial fibrillation. This ought to be investigated further in new studies," says Simon Graff, who is the primary author of the study.

According to Simon Graff, increased attention ought to be directed towards the psychological condition of the bereaved in the period after the loss, as this would make it possible to prevent conditions with arrhythmia that can otherwise become critical.


  • The observational study is based on data from a total of 88,612 Danes who had recently been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, and 886,120 control subjects.
  • Data was collected for the period 1995-2014.
  • A total of 17,478 of those suffering from atrial fibrillation and 168,940 in the control group had lost their partner.
  • The analyses take into account several factors that can trigger atrial fibrillation: age, gender, marital status, the period following the loss, existing diseases of the bereaved and the partner's physical condition a month before the death.
  • Cardiovascular disease and diabetes were observed more often in those who developed atrial fibrillation following the loss.
  • Simon Graff has written the article in connection with his research year – a programme that gives Master’s degree students from the health sciences an opportunity to try out life as a researcher for a year. He has been affiliated with the research group MEPRICA at Aarhus University.  

Further information:

Medical Doctor Simon Graff
Research Unit for General Practice and Mental Health in Primary Care (MEPRICA)
Aarhus University, Department of Public Health & Department of Clinical Medicine
Telephone: (+45) 4062 5339

Professor, PhD Mogens Vestergaard
Research Unit for General Practice and Mental Health in Primary Care (MEPRICA)
Aarhus University, Department of Public Health
Telephone: (+45) 8716 7962
Mobile: (+45) 2343 9990