Love bonds in life and death
We’ve all read the stories in the news; a man suddenly dies, then his wife of several decades also dies unexpectedly days or just hours afterward. Despite being perfectly healthy, Hollywood actress, Debbie Reynolds, died just days after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, passed away. NFL player, Doug Flutie, made the news when his mother died of an unforeseen heart attack just one hour after his father suffered a fatal heart attack of his own. They had been married for 56 years.
When an otherwise healthy person inexplicably passes away shortly after his or her partner’s sudden death, we often say the person died of a broken heart. Is this really possible? Can two people be so bonded in love that they are united in death, as well as life? The science says, yes.
Broken heart syndrome or the widowhood effect, as it’s known, is a severe biological response to the sudden shock of receiving emotionally devastating news. The official name of the condition is takotsubo cardiomyopathy in which a surge of stress-related hormones causes the left ventricle of the heart to become stunned and unable to pump blood. The result, cardiogenic shock, causes the rest of the heart to have to perform even more forceful contractions in order to move blood throughout the body. This can lead to a bulging outward of the left ventricle, severe, short-term muscle failure, and possible damage. This reaction can prompt a fatal heart attack within months, weeks, days or even hours of a person who shows no history of cardiovascular disease. This condition usually involves chest pain and shortness of breath but is most often misdiagnosed in otherwise healthy patients. Unlike a traditional heart attack that’s caused by an arterial blockage, studies have shown beta blocking drugs have no effect in these cases.
A nine-year study between Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison on broken heart syndrome found that when someone suddenly loses a spouse, “all-cause” mortality rates increase 18% for men and 16% for women. In contrast, people whose spouses died of long-term illnesses like Parkinson’s disease showed no such increase. The New England Journal of Medicine has shown that the highest risk of death for a surviving spouse comes in the first six months after losing their partner. Echoing these results JAMA Internal Medicine research shows that a person’s risk of heart attack doubles in the first month after losing a spouse. Research from the British Heart Foundation revealed that 75% of patients treated for takotsubo cardiomyopathy had experienced severe emotional distress prior to becoming ill, while other experts have said sudden death from heart-related issues is the number one cause of death in grieving spouses.
The good news is that broken heart syndrome, which is recognized by the American Heart Association, is temporary and treatable if you can listen to your body even in the midst of your grief. Anyone with chest pain and shortness of breath should see a doctor immediately, especially they’ve experienced the recent loss of a loved one. That fact that the person does not have a history of heart troubles is even more, not less, of a reason to see a doctor in this situation. The parasympathetic nervous system has shown to be highly involved in broken heart syndrome with breathing and relaxation techniques being quite effective in helping to stabilize the body’s stress response.
It’s important to remember that other life traumas such as an unexpected divorce or romantic betrayal can also trigger broken heart syndrome in the body. Because of this, it’s a good idea for everyone to learn to consciously engage their parasympathetic nervous system through things like meditation, yoga and deep breathing. Not only will it keep us healthier on a daily basis, but the experience will serve us well when the time comes for each of us to process grief in a healthy way.