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Spouses of People Suffering a Heart Attack at Increased Risk of Depression, Suicide

Update Date: Aug 22, 2012 09:14 AM EDT

Having a heart attack is stressful for all parties involved. But often times, little to no attention is given to the spouse of the person who experienced the heart attack. 

New research published in the European Heart Journal claims that spouses of people who suffer a sudden heart attack, acute myocardial infarction (AMI), have an increased risk of depression, anxiety, or suicide after the event, even if their partner survives. 

The study also said that they suffer more than spouses of people who die from, or survive, other conditions.

Researchers claim that this is the first study to investigate this and to compare it with people whose spouse died or survived from something other than a heart attack. 

A team of researchers from the USA and Denmark compared 16,506 spouses of people who died from a heart attack between 1997 and 2008 with 49,518 spouses of people who died from causes unrelated to AMI. They also matched 44,566 spouses of patients who suffered a non-fatal AMI with 131,563 spouses of people admitted to hospital for a non-fatal condition unrelated to AMI. They looked at the use of antidepressants and benzodiazepines (used for treating anxiety) before and up to a year after the event, records of contact with the health system for depression, and suicide.

The researchers found that more than three times the number of people whose spouses died from an AMI were using antidepressants in the year after the event compared with the year before.They also found that men were more susceptible to depression and suicide after their wife's survival or death from an acute myocardial infarction (AMI), than women.

Also, nearly 50 times as many spouses used a benzodiazepine after the event compared to before. For people whose spouse had died from a non-AMI cause, researchers said they saw a much higher rate of medication use than for other causes and they had an approximately 50 percent higher likelihood of claiming a prescription for these drugs. 

Those whose spouse survived an AMI had a 17 percent higher use of antidepressants after the event, whereas spouses of patients surviving some other, non-AMI related condition had an unchanged use of antidepressants after the event compared to before.

First author of the study Emil Fosbøl said overall, the rates of depression were significantly higher after the event in the fatal AMI group and in the fatal non-AMI group. 

"Although the rates were low, those who had lost a spouse to a fatal AMI or whose spouse survived an AMI more often committed suicide than those with spouses who died from, or survived, a non-AMI-related event," Fosbøl. 

The researchers speculate that it is the sudden and unexpected nature of an AMI that causes the more extreme impact on the spouse and that the larger psychological impact of a sudden loss is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder."

More than seven million people worldwide experience an AMI a year, with around 16 percent of them dying from it within a month. 

It is likely that around 11,000 people would start antidepressants after a spouse's non-fatal AMI, and 35,000 after their spouse died from an AMI. Approximately 1,400 people could take their own life in the year following a spouse's death from a heart attack.

Researchers said the healthcare system needs to consider the care needs for spouses too, not only when a patient dies from an AMI, but also when the patient is 'just' admitted to hospital with an AMI and survives. 

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