We have all heard a story that goes something like this: The old loving couple had been married for sixty years and could not stand to be apart. Unfortunately, she passed away in her sleep one night. He was so heartbroken and could not stand to live without her, a few days later he died of a broken heart. This sounds romantic, but is it actually true. Can you die of a broken heart? Keep in mind I am posing this question figuratively and not literally.
(picture from Psychology Today)
An observational study was conducted by Harvard Researchers analyzing 26,000 Americans over the age of 50. “They focused on 12,316 of the participants who were married in 1998 and followed them through 2008 to determine which participants became widows or widowers, then recorded when they died.There were 2,912 deaths during the study period. Of those, 2,373 were among married people who left a widow or widower behind. The other 539 deaths were among people who had become widows and widowers themselves. Widows and widowers were more likely to die than people whose spouses were still living, on average.” The study went on to conclude that death rates of a widower were 66% more likely to occur in the first three months. “Fifty of those 539 people died within three months of losing their spouse, 26 died between three and six months later and 44 died between six and 12 months later.” (Harvard Study above) However, they are still unclear of what caused the widow’s death.
Unfortunately, this study only looked at people over the age of 50 and that could be explained by third variables. Some possible reasons for the deaths were a grief-related mechanism, the spread of the illness that killed the first spouse and the change in lifestyle (no longer going for walks). Additionally, we can not conclude the same findings for married couple below 50.
After more research I learned about a condition known as SADS (Sudden Adult Death Syndrome). This syndrome is scientifically known as Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome; the sudden death of a healthy person. “In about 1 in every 20 cases of sudden cardiac death and up to 1 in 5 young sudden cardiac deaths, no definite cause of death can be found, even after drugs have been excluded and an expert cardiac pathologist has examined the heart for structural abnormalities. In such cases, the death will be attributed to sudden arrhythmia death syndrome (SADS). This is caused by electrical functioning of the heart without affecting the structure.” It is possible that the widows from the first study died of SADS.
We can conclude from the study and the research above that widows can die of loneliness in the form of SADS, a cardiac death caused by an emotional stress. This makes sense if you loved your deceased spouse. However, can you die of a broken heart when it isn’t your lover who passed away?
After researching this question I learned about another syndrome known as cardiomyopathy which “makes it harder for your heart to pump and deliver blood to the rest of your body. Cardiomyopathy can lead to heart failure.”
A John Hopkins University cardiologist, Ilan Wittstein, MD, studied cardiomyopathy which is also known as broken heart syndrome for a decade. “This syndrome is a heart conditions brought upon by high levels of stress (caused by heart-breaking scenarios) that restrict the heart’s ability to pump blood. The first several patients we saw, many of them had [just experienced] the death of a loved one, a spouse, a parent. Some people started having symptoms at a funeral.”
Wittstein along with other doctors conducted a study with “19 previously healthy patients who were admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital with chest pain or symptomatic heart failure precipitated by acute emotional stress. They underwent the following tests Patients were evaluated by means of serial electrocardiography and serial measurement of cardiac isoenzymes, including creatine kinase, creatine kinase MB fraction, and troponin I.”
Unfortunately, this study looks only at 19 patients, the likelihood of chance being the third variable is much higher.
(picture by Cardiac Health)
After reading all of these studies, one can conclude that while it may not be possible to die of a broken heart, the emotional stress involved in losing a loved one may affect your heart in the form of SADS and Cardiomyopathy and wind up killing you.