Yes, you CAN die of a broken heart: How the shock of losing a loved one can cause physical changes that put those left behind at serious risk
- Debbie Reynolds suffered a stroke just hours after the death of her daughter
- Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia, died on December 27 when she was 60
- Her mother and fellow actress died the following day after suffering a stroke.
Just hours before Debbie Reynolds suffered a stroke after the death of her daughter Carrie Fisher, she told her family: ‘I miss her so much. I just want to be with her.’
When her son, Todd, said the ’emotion and stress’ from the loss of Carrie had ‘pretty much triggered’ her death, it confirmed the instinctive reaction of many — that she had died of a broken heart.
Most of us have heard stories of long- married couples dying weeks or days apart. Examples include Johnny Cash who died in 2003, five months after his wife, June.
A decade ago such double deaths would have been put down to coincidence, or a need to seek solace in the belief that love lasts beyond the grave, but a growing body of scientific studies by various universities and hospitals is finding ‘broken-hearted’ to be more than just a turn of phrase.
Indeed, research is finding that the shock of losing a loved one, be it a spouse or a child, can cause physical changes which put those left behind at serious risk.
Dr Derek Connolly, consultant cardiologist at Birmingham City Hospital, says Debbie Reynolds was a prime candidate for Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy or ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’.
‘This usually happens in the 48 hours after a bereavement,’ he says. ‘We see this in older ladies who have lost their husbands, but it’s as likely to happen in older parents who have lost children.’ At first the symptoms — arm and chest pain, dizziness and shortness of breath — are so similar to those of a normal heart attack it is difficult for doctors to tell the difference, says Dr Connolly.
Billie Lourd, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds pose during TNT’s 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on January 25, 2015 in Los Angeles, California
Just hours before Debbie Reynolds (pictured with her daughter Carrie in 1965) suffered a stroke after the death of Carrie Fisher, she told her family: ‘I miss her so much’
On closer investigation, scans reveal that patients do not have the cholesterol build-up of classic heart attacks. ‘The shock and stress release huge amounts of hormones like adrenaline,’ says Dr Connolly. ‘This squeezes the muscle in the walls of the arteries, which starves some parts of the heart of blood.
‘This means the left ventricle balloons, making it look similar in shape to a type of octopus pot in Japan, where the syndrome was named.’
It is 25 years since it was identified but only now is the condition more widely diagnosed. Studies by Imperial College have estimated two per cent of the 300,000 ‘heart attacks’ each year in the UK are caused by the syndrome.
Most at risk are women who have been through the menopause. One study found that of 1,750 patients with Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, 89.8 per cent were women with an average age of 67 — possibly because female sex hormones release more stress hormones than in men.
If caught early, patients can be given such drugs as beta blockers to stop adrenaline compressing the arteries, allowing the heart to return to normal within a week or so. Yet even if you absorb the initial shock, other studies have found it is essential to look for other after-shocks.
While older women are most in danger of Broken Heart Syndrome, young people can experience a raised risk of developing irregular heartbeat, or atrial fibrillation in the weeks after a death.
The study, published in the journal Open Heart, found risk was highest eight to 14 days after a sudden loss. After a year it fell to normal levels.
There is another threat to the old. The loss of a loved one is more likely to affect the immune system and the body’s ability to fight infection.
A University of Birmingham study on the effect of bereavement on white defender blood cells (neutrophils) which fight off major killers of the elderly like pneumonia, took blood samples from recently bereaved men and women aged 65 and over and looked at how effective their neutrophils were.
While grieving young people’s neutrophils were not affected by such distress, those of pensioners were far less effective. Researchers said the body’s reaction to grief may also make it harder to fight off other illnesses, like cancer.
Psychiatrist and Mail columnist Dr Max Pemberton says the effect of mental health on our bodies is now known to be more powerful than previously thought. He says studies show that in the first year after a spouse dies, the surviving partner is at a 67 per cent higher risk of a heart attack.
Dr Pemberton says: ‘I suspect this is down to a combination of factors. During bereavement, key hormones and other chemicals are released which have a knock-on effect.
‘Until recently, we thought it was anecdotal to hear about people dying of broken hearts. It flew in the face of medical thinking, but when I worked on cardiac wards you would see people who had heart attacks after difficult events or after depression.
Dr Pemberton added: ‘One elderly man was depressed after a heart attack. I introduced myself as the resident psychiatrist and he broke down. His wife had died eight months before and he didn’t see the point in living any more. ‘It broke my heart,’ he told me. ‘
Dr Pemberton says research highlights how vital it is for those left behind to look for signs of illness:
‘People often forget to look after themselves. They stop eating and exercising. Those around them need to make sure they look after themselves, not just in the first few weeks but also in the months afterwards.
‘We are starting to appreciate the vital link between patients’ physical and mental health, particularly at bereavement.’