NEW YORK – The death of a spouse or child may cause a broken heart — literally.

A bereaved spouse or parent may experience a quickened pulse and other dangerous changes in heart rhythm, according to an Australian study presented Sunday in Chicago at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions. The symptoms tend to go away within six months, the researchers said.

Previous studies linked bereavement to an increased risk of heart attacks and sudden cardiac death, according to a literature review published in February in the International Journal of Nursing Studies. The new research, from scientists at the University of Sydney’s nursing school, may explain why: Depression and anxiety triggered by the deaths of loved ones cause the heart to beat abnormally.

“While the focus at the time of bereavement is naturally directed toward the deceased person, the health and welfare of bereaved survivors should also be of concern to medical professionals,” said Thomas Buckley, the lead researcher, in a statement.

Some mourners may benefit from medical review, said Buckley, who is acting director of postgraduate studies at Sydney Nursing School.

The researchers examined 78 bereaved spouses and parents two weeks after the deaths of loved ones, and again six months later. For comparison, the scientists also examined volunteers who hadn’t recently experienced a death.

Compared with those who hadn’t been bereaved, the patients coping with losses had about twice as many episodes of rapid heartbeats in the first weeks after the deaths. After six months, the difference disappeared.

The average heart rate was about five beats a minute higher in the mourning patients, compared with the other study participants, in the first few weeks following the loss.

The rates of depression and anxiety were higher in the bereaved than in the control group, and stayed elevated six months later, the researchers said.