NEW YORK -You really can die of a broken heart, scientists announced this week. New research showed the risk of having heart failure or a stroke doubles in the first month after losing a loved one.

The findings add to growing evidence that bereavement doesn’t just increase the risk of depression and anxiety, but can weaken the body’s defences against all types of disease - from the common cold to cancer.

Doctors even call it broken heart syndrome, not least because you are six times more likely to die in the year after losing a loved one than at any other time.  The phenomenon explains why many widows and widowers die within a few months of their spouses.


Within weeks of losing a loved one, some women lose hair at an alarming rate. Hair grows in a natural cycle. A strand typically grows from the scalp for three years before entering a ‘dormant’ state for three months. It then falls out to make way for a new strand. At any one time, 10 per cent of hairs are dormant, while in a typical day 30 to 150 fall out naturally.


Grief weakens the immune system, leaving us vulnerable to colds, flu, sore throats and tummy upsets. Again, the culprit is cortisol, which surges through our bodies when we are stressed to prepare us for a quick getaway from danger. In order to give muscles and brain more energy, it diverts the body’s resources away from our immune systems. Over weeks and months, that can make us far more likely to fall ill.


Bereavement can trigger tension headaches - the so-called ‘stress headaches’ regularly experienced by a third of adults. The causes are not properly understood, but they are often linked to tight shoulder and neck muscles.


Any major stressful event, such as a bereavement, can trigger an asthma attack in people with  the condition. And bereavements may actually increase the risk of developing the disease in the first place. Last year, a major study looked at the records of more than five million Swedish and Danish children born between 1977 and 2006. They found children who lost a parent or sibling before the age of 18 were 10 per cent more likely to be hospitalised with asthma than children who were not bereaved.


Not surprisingly, blood pressure usually soars in the first weeks after losing a loved one.  That’s because stress hormones released in your bloodstream cause the heart to beat faster and blood vessels to narrow. Doctors say evidence of long-term effects of bereavement on blood pressure is not so clear.


Around 100,000 Britons suffer from ulcerative colitis, a long-term inflammatory bowel disease. Caused by the inflammation of the large intestine, symptoms include diarrhoea, passing blood, stomach cramps and a frequent need to go to the toilet. Its cause is unknown and there’s no cure. But the stress caused by bereavement can trigger relapses, or make symptoms worse.


The immune system doesn’t just fight off bugs - it’s also crucial in defending against cancer. But high levels of cortisol triggered by bereavement can weaken the immune system. Studies have shown that widowed women have fewer natural killer cells - the cells in the immune system that attack tumours. A Swedish study in 2003 showed that women who had lost a husband were twice as likely to develop breast cancer as women who had not.