You’ve heard the stories about couples who die within weeks, days or even hours of each other. The idea that someone could die just from experiencing grief or loss has become somewhat of a myth. It’s also become culturally acceptable to say someone died of a broken heart after a major loss. But what if it's not a myth? Can you die of a broken heart, really?!?
Big Question: Can you die of a broken heart?
As it turns out, you can. Believe it or not. There is science to prove it.
Broken heart syndrome is actually referred to as stress-induced cardiomyopathy; when a part of your heart enlarges and doesn’t pump well following an intense emotional or physical event.
Extreme stress or shock sends a surge of stress hormones to the heart that can stun the heart and cause chest pains.
But is there proof of this condition? Is broken heart syndrome real?
The first cases and studies of this strange syndrome started in Japan in 1990. And it wasn’t until 1998 that the United States recognized the syndrome existed. In fact, it wasn’t until the New England Journal of Medicine published a John Hopkins Hospital Medical study in 2005, that the medical community really began to accept and understand broken heart syndrome.
Broken heart syndrome is not a heart attack but it can mimic the symptoms. A heart attack happens when the arteries become blocked. There is no blockage with broken heart syndrome. The reason why this cardiac event is tough to diagnose and distinguish between a heart attack are the symptoms.
What are the symptoms of broken heart syndrome?
*Shortness of breath
Once a doctor can determine that these symptoms are not the result of a blocked artery and not a heart attack, they can do an imaging of the heart to see that it has expanded and is not pumping properly. The problem is that doctor’s don’t know enough about broken heart syndrome, so they don’t test for it and the diagnosis gets missed.
Women are more likely to experience broken heart syndrome than men. In fact, 90% of cases happen to women who are middle-aged or elderly and have gone through menopause. Another common thread is post menopausal women with a neurologic disorder like seizures or a history of mental health problems.
It's not all bad news though. There is good news!
Broken heart syndrome is treatable and rarely fatal; only up to 8% of people actually die. This unusual range is not totally accurate because broken heart syndrome is often misdiagnosed or missed. But in approximately 98% of cases, the heart recovers and there is no long term damage.
What triggers broken heart syndrome?
A shocking physical or emotional event that isn’t necessarily negative.
*Death of a loved one
*Victim of robbery
But there are also positive events that can trigger:
*Winning a lot of money
*A surprise party
*Hitting a hole in one
When someone dies after a traumatic or shocking event with no real explanation as to why and there is no prior evidence of heart disease, broken heart syndrome is often raised as a possibility.
Broken heart syndrome was widely reported as the cause of actress Debbie Reynolds' death. She passed away only one day after her daughter, Star Wars legend, Carrie Fisher. The actual cause of Debbie Reynolds death was a stroke; a stroke that was brought on by extreme stress.
NFL player Doug Flutie lost both of his parents on the same day. Flutie’s father had been ill and died of a heart attack and only an hour later, Flutie’s mom experienced a massive heart attack and died. They had been married for 56 years.
Elderly couples, married for years, who die within days or hours of each other are often attributed to broken heart syndrome. Harold and Ruth Knapke were married for 65 years and died within 11 hours of each other in their Ohio nursing home.
Some more unusual cases involve a 79-year-old man who died on a Massachusetts golf course after hitting the first hole in one of his life. And a 79-year-old woman in Charlotte, North Carolina died suddenly during a robbery of her home.
Because fatal cases are hard to confirm and probably often missed, most recorded cases of broken heart syndrome involve survivors.
From the John Hopkins study published in 2005, all 19 participants survived broken heart syndrome. One of the women, MaryAnn Murray, was hosting a Father’s Day weekend picnic for her entire family and became so overwhelmed by the stress that she experienced heart attack symptoms. At the hospital, she was diagnosed with broken heart syndrome.
More research needs to be done and more doctor’s need to be educated about broken heart syndrome. But if you or someone you love experiences heart attack symptoms, no matter what the situation, it is best to go to the hospital, armed with this information.