Can you really die of a broken heart? This centuries-old idea may have seemed like an old wives’ tale or a romantic fancy powering folk songs like “Barbara Allen.” (Here’s a link to Joan Baez singing a 20th century American version.)
Death Due to a Broken Heart:
Epidemiologists have known for quite a while, however, that when an elderly person dies, the widowed spouse is at higher risk of dying too within several months (American Journal of Public Health, March 1987). In the 1990s, Japanese scientists recognized a specific syndrome that could be recognized in coronary angiograms: “takotsubo” or broken-heart syndrome (Heart Failure Clinics, Oct. 2016). They named it takotsubo after the shape of the heart on an angiogram image. It resembles a traditional Japanese fisherman’s trap used to catch octopus.
This “broken heart” condition is triggered by extreme stress (Heart, Sep. 2017). Doctors must distinguish between people suffering from this problem and those having a heart attack, although the symptoms are similar. Not all patients die, but some do. Why do some people experience this terrible event while they are grieving or still in shock while others do not?
Why Grief May Trigger a Broken Heart:
Researchers at Rice University say they have figured out part of this puzzle: why recently widowed seniors are at greater risk of death (Psychoneuroendocrinology, Oct. 11, 2018). Investigators interviewed 99 men and women who had lost a spouse within the past three months. They also drew blood for analysis, with special attention to pro-inflammatory compounds.
Those with the greatest grief response had higher levels of inflammatory markers in their blood. Widows and widowers who were more depressed than most also had higher levels of these pro-inflammatory agents. Increased inflammation might account for the increased risk of heart problems and premature death often seen in widowed people.
The investigators conclude:
“These findings also add to the broader literature on depression and inflammation by showing that even in a population with high levels of depressive symptoms, there is a positive relationship between depression and inflammation.”