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Illustration: Don Lindsay/The West Australian

Fatal heart attacks can leave a legacy of heartache on victims' families, a study has shown.

Spouses of people who die of a sudden heart attack are more likely to suffer depression and are at higher risk of suicide, according to research in the European Heart Journal.

People who lost a partner from a heart attack were three times more likely to be taking antidepressants the year after their death.

Even for those whose partner survived a heart attack, antidepressant use increased 17 per cent.

The Heart Foundation's clinical issues director Robert Grenfell said it was widely known that heart attacks could lead to depression but the new study showed partners were also hit hard.

"It's another reason why we need urgent action to improve cardiac rehabilitation services, which provide counselling for patients and their partners and the opportunity to identify and manage cases of depression early," Dr Grenfell said.

"Depression is an important risk factor for heart disease, so it's vital partners get the support they need to reduce their own risk of heart disease," he said.

Cardiac rehabilitation includes exercise, health education, counselling, behaviour modification strategies and support for self-management.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide call Lifeline 13 11 14.