(NEW YORK) — Spouses of those who experience a sudden heart attack — what doctors call an acute myocardial infarction, or AMI — have an increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicide afterward, even if their partner survives, a new European Heart Journal report suggests. And they tend to suffer more psychologically than the partners of people who have other serious medical conditions.
In an investigation of more than 200,000 people, American and Danish researchers found that more than three times the number of people whose significant other died from a sudden cardiac attack were using antidepressants in the year afterward, compared to the year before. Additionally, nearly 50 times as many of the spouses were taking a benzodiazepine, a class of drug used to treat anxiety.
Men were more susceptible to depression and suicide than women, and partners experienced the same level of mental anguish, whether or not they were married.
“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 compared to before,” says Dr. Emil Fosbøl, the study’s lead author.
Dr. Neica Goldberg, a national spokeswoman for the American Heart Association notes that her experience treating patients mirrors what the study has found.
“For a long time, we’ve known that there are issues with the psychological health of both the patient who suffers a heart attack and their spouse,” she says. “I’ve noticed it and patients report it.”
Goldberg says it’s common for doctors to overlook how a caregiver is holding up because the caregiver is focused on prolonging the life of the patient.
“We don’t always take the time to focus on quality of life or what the family is going through,” she points out.
Caregivers are often reluctant to talk about their own feelings because it’s their partner who is sick and in need of immediate attention. Personal problems tend to come up in the context of their spouse’s illness. For example, Goldberg says, a partner will take her aside to ask whether the patient can climb stairs, walk up hills or return to sexual activity.
“That gives me the opportunity to ask about how they’re doing and whether or not they need anything,” she says.
Goldberg also makes sure that close family members are present when she speaks to patients about their condition to ensure everyone has an opportunity to ask questions and talk about all the issues, including their own.
Even if they are aware the significant other of a patient is depressed or anxious, cardiologists can’t prescribe medication for them. But, Goldberg says, the doctor can and should recommend therapy.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio