Can you Really Die of a Broken Heart?

We sometimes read in the newspaper that an elderly widower, or widow, died shortly after the sudden death of their long-time partner or spouse.

Perhaps this has happened in your family? Relatives of these people often believe that their grieving grandparent or parent died of a broken heart. But this is not confined to older people as it occurs after long loving relationships of younger people as well.

Is this really possible? Can people die of a broken heart? Recent research has confirmed that the answer is yes.

A traumatic breakup, an extreme argument or experiencing the death of a loved one can elicit the release of stress hormones that can trigger a response in the functioning of the heart. This is a condition that is known to medical science is referred to as "Broken Heart Syndrome". The condition is rarely fatal but can lead to death in association with other response such as the suppression of the immune system. The medical term for his condition is called "Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy" by the Japanese doctors who discovered it in 1991 or more commonly simply "Stress-induced Cardiomyopathy".

Quotes

Quotes about grief
Quotes about grief
You really can die of a broken heart. The Broken Heart Syndrome is an established condition
You really can die of a broken heart. The Broken Heart Syndrome is an established condition
Many people who suffer from Broken Heart Syndrome and recover have increased risk of death from other causes
Many people who suffer from Broken Heart Syndrome and recover have increased risk of death from other causes
Families need to be aware of broken heart syndrome and provide extra support for those who grieve
Families need to be aware of broken heart syndrome and provide extra support for those who grieve

Grief Induces Symptoms Similar to Heart Attack

The symptoms are quite similar to a heart attack, with strong chest pains, but it is not a classic heart attack. During a stressful and emotional time the body sometimes releases a set of hormones that affect the heart in unusual ways. The hormones causes the heart to become elongated. and the pumping efficiency of the heart muscles is greatly reduced. The condition is treatable by hospital staff and most patients generally make a full recovery from the physical condition in a few days.

Various studies have also shown other ways is which the loss of a loved one or an emotional breakup can increase the risk of death in other ways. Surviving spouses may have increased likelihood of suffering cancer, heart disease, depression, alcoholism, and suicide.

Reactions to Grief

Many people feel numbness and shock in the first few days after their loved passes away. They may also experience tightness in the throat, shortness of breath, hallucinations, difficulty concentrating and lack of or excessive sleep and eating.

After the initial shock of hurt, many grievers experience a lack energy and have tension and headaches. They may also a heightened focus on emotions such as sadness, fear, guilt, anger, confusion and sense of emptiness. These emotional stresses can also suppress the immune system leading to other problems.

When a spouse dies, many people effectively lose their 'present tense' and many people may to want to follow their companion into death. Seeking medical help is the last thing that people want to do. Many people also struggle to cope with the anticipation of major changes survivors will have to make in their daily lives. Without their partner their the day to day lives will never be the same again.

Research Studies on Broken Heart Syndrome

Many research studies over the last 50 years have shown when someone very close to you dies – especially if it's your spouse, partner or child – you're at a significantly greater risk of dying yourself. And it is your heart that could fail and kill you during this period of intense grief, with heart attacks responsible for more than half of the excess deaths in those who are recently bereaved.

A team of researchers at the Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, Australia recently studied 160 people, of which 80 had a partner or child who had died suddenly. The bereaved group reported more psychological symptoms such as depression, anger and anxiety.

They also had common physical symptoms such as reduced sleep and appetite, an increase in blood pressure and stress hormones, as well as changes in the immune system and blood clotting. It is likely that a combination of psychological, behavioural and biological responses, which increase the risk of a heart attack.

The bereaved group's symptoms or stress and anxiety were most intense a few weeks after their loved one died, but generally had declined considerably three months after the death.

Surprisingly the research study showed that the risks apply to all age groups, not just to the elderly. People as young as 30 developed physical symptoms, and in particular were more likely to have higher depressive symptoms in the early days after the death.

A study, by researchers from St Andrews University in Scotland, of more than 58,000 married couples, found that about 40 per cent of widowers and 26 per cent of widows died within three years of losing their partner. The study showed strong evidence that many widowers and widows were more likely to die because they had lost their spouse, this is referred to as the widowhood effect.

A classic example of the widowhood effect would be Johnny Cash. In 2003, just four months after the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, the singer died, aged 71, from complications arising from diabetes. Also the parents of Martin and Gary Kemp, the singers who found fame in the 1980s with Spandau Ballet, died within 48 hours of each other.

In another study, researchers examined 19 patients who had apparently had traditional heart attacks between 1999 and 2003 after having sudden emotional stress, including news of a death, being present during an armed robbery, shock from a surprise party, and being involved in a car accident. Most were women in their sixties and seventies, though one was just 27. None had a history of previous heart problems.

When comparisons were made with people who had classic heart attacks, they found that the test group had healthy hearts and unclogged arteries. However there were high levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline, in their blood. The hormone levels were two to three times higher than in the heart attack victims, and seven to 30 times higher than normal.

It has been suggested that these massive increases in stress hormones can directly stun the heart muscle causing a temporary heart malfunction that resembles a heart attack. The heart muscle isn't killed as occurs in a typical heart attack, but the heart stops working properly. Tests also found distinctive patterns in the electrical firing and contractions of the hearts of those who experienced the syndrome, which should enable doctors to diagnose the condition quickly.

Broken Heart Syndrome - is a known medical condition that frequently occurs soon after the loss of a loved one. Although Broken Heart Syndrome is discussed in modern and ancient literature, it was not recognised as a physical ailment until the early 1990’s. Symptoms of broken heart syndrome include shortness of breath, chest pain, insomnia and depression.

Although it may be easily mistaken for a heart attack, broken heart syndrome is actually an inflammatory heart disease that temporarily affects the heart muscle. The heart muscle becomes weak, and the apex of the left ventricle enlarges, constricting blood flow.

When a person is under stress through a broken heart, the brain releases high levels of catecholamines, primarily adrenaline, dopamine and norepinephrine. These hormones are active in the “fight-or-flight” response, and are part of the human sympathetic nervous system. The surge of catecholamines weakens the heart muscle, causing the heart to beat irregularity, constrictions, and changes in the shape of the heart.

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Left, image of a Normal Heart; Right, a heart affected by BHS
Left, image of a Normal Heart; Right, a heart affected by BHS

Women Especially Prone to Broken Heat Syndrome (BHS)

BHS is most common in women who have suffered the loss of a loved one or similar intense emotional trauma. A sudden fright, such as a robbery or even a surprise party, can also trigger BHS.

Although some patients suffering from BHS may require emergency treatment, or hospitalisation, the heart usually heals within a period of two weeks to two months. Psychological symptoms may persist for much longer. About 10 per cent of people diagnosed with BHS suffered a recurrence within four years.

It is possible to die of a broken heart through broken heart syndrome.

An extensive study by the Mayo Clinic found about 3.6 percent of fatalities rate in patients with broken heart syndrome.

The study also found that patients who experienced physical stress had lower survival rates than those under emotional stress alone.

Physical symptoms of Broken Heart Syndrome may include:

  • chest pain and pressure
  • shortness of breath
  • arrhythmia
  • stomach pain, nausea and/or loss of appetite
  • fatigue
  • insomnia

Psychological effects of Broken Heart Syndrome may include:

  • depression
  • constant or frequent crying
  • thoughts of suicide
  • feelings of emptiness
  • the so-called “thousand yard stare” (a military term, used to describe to battle-weary soldiers. Under extreme stress, the gaze may become distant, unfocused and emotionless, indicating a detachment from reality).

© janderson99-HubPages

Conclusion

Yes, You can die of a Broken Heart!

© 2010 Dr. John Anderson

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Comments 9 comments

FaithDream profile image

FaithDream 5 years ago from (Midwest) USA

Thank you for posting this great article! My father passed away 3 weeks after his mother(my grandmother) died and my mother was deeply grieved.

What helped my mom through all this was to find love. She got a dog and even though she didn't stop grieving, she found some comfort. My mom passed 10 years later but I never gave up on her & stood by her side. I became her advocate, friend, and concerned daughter all those years.

So thank you for sharing this. When someone we love passes, we need to lean on others for support. We also need to be there for those who are grieving.


Rebeca R. 5 years ago

Thanks for this article, it was very helpful,I wil like toknow how long take the healing process after that and also wants to know if the patient can have a normal life after to have that condition.


alice 4 years ago

there is one of my who has been rejected by a girl and he feels lonely and thinks of that girl and cries for her love.wat should i do to comfort him


Philly cheesesteak630 4 years ago

The loss of my husband has been tremendous. It is pain so deep there can't be any remedy in this lifetime. Not even the loss o my dad when I was 9 and a miscarriage combined can remotely come close to this pain. My children roll their eyes when I cry (too much they say). My disabled elderly mother whom I aide now is jealous that I cry about that loss and not her disability. If it weren't for my love of God I would pray to go to sleep and never wake up so I could be back with my "baby" my hubby my soulmate


Maria 4 years ago

I totally agree with this article. I have a heart disease which was stress induced n 2007 from a broken heart. Dilated cardio myopathy is the enlarged chamber of your heart which reduces the pumping efficiency of your heart(EF)greatly. I have again recently lost that same person and immediately following the break up I was sick with a cold. The pain is too horrible to bear and it is an effort to just finish the day. The feeling of not wanting to live any longer is overwhelming. If your loved one is not dead there is a remedy to this BHS. Unfortunately it has nothing to do with a doctor or drugs. Love can do magic. It heals all.


Tami Fite profile image

Tami Fite 4 years ago

Thank you - my mom and best friend slipped into eternity 12 days ago -- as she slipped into eternity, my heart literally felt as though it would stop -- the days after I was so grieved I felt the irregular beating -- now so many days I am physically ill. I know it will pass, but it helps to know Broken Heart syndrome does exist and that it is possible to recover. Bless you!


oxygel 4 years ago

i lost my son and grandson on the 1st of september 2012 since that day my life as stopped my heart is broken my son died trying to save his son aged 6 yrs who was washed into the sea sadly both george and louis died in each others arms, people tell me time heals but time for me is just a re-run of the 1st sept i,m disabled and suffer pain every day but it does not compare to the pain in my heart and mind. I no longer fear death i welcome it as a sweet release from this daily torment.


Tami Fite profile image

Tami Fite 4 years ago

Oxygel -- I can not imagine your pain... I will keep you close in my thoughts and prayers -- grief is such a terrible journey.... today, October 30th is the 7 month anniversary of my mom and best friend's death. I have had days that were ok, and days that were horrendous... I wish they were predictable so I could prepare, but they are not. Visiting my elderly dad today, he said he doesn't want to go anywhere because he thinks my mom may walk right through the front door as she did so many days.... he is lost without her. God help you, God help all of us on this journey of grief.... I can't imagine what I would do if I didn't have hope in God and an eternal home in heaven. Bless you!


QueenSnowPea 4 years ago

I am estranged from my daughter who is 36. The pain in my heart is indescribable. The constant crying it so horrible. It comes in waves. Anything can set it off. It affects me at work since I work full time. I have even gone in the restroom to cry it out. But at my desk I have been caught once crying. I can't control it. I can't stop it. I hate crying, it makes my chest hurt and I can't breathe very well. It makes the pain great. This is way worse than a man breaking my heart. My daughter was inside me growing under my heart only to break it so many years later. I have 3 grandchildren. The oldest who is 14 has become distant from me because of this. The middle child has Autism so he isn't even aware of me. The only one is my 4 1/2 year old granddaughter who will run to me and say "Grandma!" but when I have to leave she cries for me and I cry. While I love my grandchildren, I have realized that I need my daughter too. I hurt so bad and the loneliness is so horrible that I take my sleep aid early and go to bed and sleep. Living alone for 16 years makes it harder. When she was part of my life, I didn't mind living alone. I have 2 friends who help me but it only goes so far. My friend says I dwell on it too much. But the pain is real and it's like if you broke your arm, the pain would be there whether you dwell on it or not. This is mental pain but it's still pain.

At work it's hard because I can cry at the drop of a hat. I even started up when I was at the store paying for groceries yesterday and I couldn't control it, I had to put my hand over my face and look down. It's torture. Isn't there a medicine that can dull the pain? I am on meds for depression and OCD, Anxiety and ADHD but it doesn't help this. My doctor hasn't seemed concerned about it. I even want to "pass" in my sleep. I would never consider suicide because to me it's a gross sin. But I am finding life hard to live and enjoy nothing.

My mother went through a heartache back in 1970 from a divorce and the doctor gave her a bunch of meds to dull her. They don't do that anymore. I wish I had amnesia and forgot who I was. This pain is too great to bear.

Bottom line is I want the crying to go away. I can't function in public, at work or even at home when this comes. And it comes in waves with no warning.

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