That old saying, “she died of a broken heart?” It’s not just poetry. Studies have shown that some people who lose a loved one may be at greater risk for a heart attack or cardiac death. And new research, presented this week at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions, offers clues for why. [Thomas Buckley et al., “Early Bereavement is Associated with Increased Heart Rate and Reduced Heart Rate Variability“]

The subjects in the study included 78 volunteers who’d recently lost a spouse or child at a hospital, and a control group whose relatives survived the hospital stay. The average age of both groups was about 65. Researchers monitored the participants’ heart rates and rhythms for 24 hours, once within two weeks of the family death and again six months later.

Soon after their loss the bereaved had an average heart rate of 75 beats per minute, five beats more than the controls. And twice as many episodes of tachycardia: rapid heartbeats. They also scored higher on depression and anxiety tests, as you’d expect, which could be behind the physiological changes.

The good news: after six months, heart rates and rhythms were back to normal. But if you’ve just lost someone and feel physical heartache, the researchers recommend seeing a doctor. It could save someone else from grieving.