The People's Perspective on Medicine

Why You Can Die of a Broken Heart

People experiencing severe grief or depression because of bereavement have elevated levels of inflammation. This could contribute to broken heart syndrome.

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.”

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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I too, had a heart attack 2 years ago, the type which has been officially named Takotsubo Myocardiopathy, and colloquially ‘broken heart syndrome.’ I was 63 and single, not an elderly person grieving the loss of my partner. I studied as much as I could find about it after that.

Although it has been ‘officially’ categorized as only a ‘syndrome’ – “a set of medical signs and symptoms that are correlated with each other and often with a particular disease or disorder” –
it is in my opinion, a bonafied heart attack. You heart is definitely having an attack, and it can kill you. Calling it a ‘syndrome’ does a disservice to the seriousness of it. It feels in fact, the same as any other heart attack episode; and a heart related enzyme, called troponin is measured which when levels are too high, indicates a serious situation and possibly rupture of the heart is occurring, just like any other heart attack. It may not be related to plaque and a blockage in your ateries for this type, but it is a heart attack just the same. If you survive the initial attack, they say, you are unlikely to have another. Stress – yes it is precipitated and triggered by stress, as I can well attest. But aren’t other heart attacks considered to be triggered by stress too, even if other signs and symptoms exist as well? If one is weakened by any condition be it due to stress or plaque build up or whatever else, and their heart is the vulnerable point and is compromised in the same way, they have had a ‘heart attack,’ in my opinion.

We really don’t know that much about most of our challenging health conditions, but our system gives us the false sense that it does, naming and describing things as though they are absolute. Looking back through history we see how considerable an amount of erroneous information has been put out there by ‘experts’ to define and describe conditions. They do the best they can do, but they are humans with egos, not gods. Most of how it works is still quite a mystery.

My husband and young son died in an accident. My daughter was a baby at the time. She died in an accident when she was in her 20s. Then my youngest son died at 13. I can attest that it does affect your heart as I had pain literally and figuratively in my chest/heart.

I believe that people who die after their spouse does, want to die. I do not want to live if my husband dies first. I cannot imagine living my life alone and unprotected.

I had broken heart syndrome during a time of an open relationship with my husband. He had a special friend and I did not. I tried and was very open to it but could not find the right friend for myself. It pained me so much that my husband could enjoy and want to seek out this person while I quietly died in my heart. I ended up one week getting chest pains and then on a Friday the pain went down my arm. The EKG showed severe abnormalities and I was rushed to ED. The next EKG also showed different but again strange abnormalities. Of course I had to wait till that Monday for exploratory procedure and they assumed stents. The procedure done. The doctor was annoyed and walked out because my arteries were fine. My family doctor diagnosed a combo of acid reflux (she gave me a vitamin of HCL. Worked like a charm) and Broken Heart Syndrome as she knew my situation. Anyway… Did I ever find MY special friend?? Yes. Just because a couple wants an open relationship does not mean things unfold in “proper” order and are “even”.

I also had a taketsubo the day after a dental surgery, when the pain came on very strong. Even though I quickly took the prescribed pain Meds, because of the pains radiating down my arm and up into the neck,I was rushed to the cath lab, and they found no blockages. But, the cardiologist wanted me on Lisinopril for the rest of my life. I did take it for 2 years.

I have lost all my immediate family….my husband been the last…..I thought i was handling all the other deaths until my husband……now I am sick with grief that I can’t get over,,,,,My Dr has tried a few anti-depressants, but I dont thin I took them long enough to see if any worked…….Now I don;t think I can continue on without taking something to cope with all this stress…….is there an antidepressant that can help without a lot of side effects…..
PLEASE HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This is for Shelby in S.C. When I read about your husband passing and “you are sick with grief that you can’t get over”; I felt for you. I too have experienced many deaths in my family within a span of 20 years up till the most recent in 2017. It truly saddens me, as I remember our special family gatherings and how much fun we had talking, eating, socializing together. Luckily, I am very blessed to have a “Wonderful Husband”! However, I have always been artistic; when I was younger I didn’t have much time to pursue and venture into my artistic skills. I had a career, raising a family, devoting time to caring for our children. Then one day, they both married and have their own families. I retired earlier this year and yes, I do enjoy my retirement and having more time to spend with my husband, adult children & grand-children. Life is Good!. I thank God for my blessings. However, there are times I get lonely, and I remember many of my family members who have passed. I began pursing my hobbies. I enjoy taking online classes, I design and create unique terrariums and I also design my accessories, I paint furniture and design many unique wooden signs, I keep myself very busy with many arts & crafts.

What I’m trying to emphasize is to “keep yourself busy.” Pursue a new adventure in your life. Make your life happy. Yes, you may have moments of grief. However, I do believe you can and will get over your grief. I don’t know. Maybe you aren’t artistic? Maybe your thing is not into “arts/crafts”? Then you can think about volunteering your precious time in a community or civic cause in your area. You will be around people. What makes life great, is communicating with others. It’s always great meeting and making new friends! Shelby, in N.C., I wish you the best!

I have had takotsubo cardiomyopathy twice. Diagnosed by cardiologists and I was hospitalized. The emergency room physician told me that I probably had a heart attack. Ekg showed changes related to a heart attack. My ejection fraction was under 20%. Severe stress occurred before each episode. Echocardiogram showed takasubo cardiomyopathy. I quickly recovered each time and my ejection fraction returned to normal. I am in permanent atrial fibrillation at this time. I am 66 years old. What I would like to know if takasubo can occur a third time. What I have read indicates that it only has occurred twice to the people that have had this. Since the occurrences, I have gone through even greater stress, grief , anger and loss but I did not have takasubo. Has anyone had more than 2 episodes of takasubo cardiomyopathy?

This actually happened to me. After I had extreme dental surgery where the Doctor pulled all my teeth and gave me a bone graft to plant implants…..which took 4 hours, I was so sick. I don’t remember exactly how many days it was after the surgery, but I seemed to be getting worse by the minute, and I just didn’t feel like going to urgent care, and then I got so sick, my husband called 911. They came right away and saw all the bruises on my face from the surgery, but they immediately did an EKG, and said I was having a heart attack so they rushed me to the hospital. Turns out I had sepsis, and they said they couldn’t do surgery because of my heart, so they did an angiogram, and the results were, there was nothing wrong with my heart, no blockages at all, so they said it was cardiomyopathy non stemi…in other words, Broken heart Syndrome, “takotsubo”. But because I was septic, I would have died in 4 hours if I had not gone to the hospital. People said my husband broke my heart because he didn’t get me to the hospital sooner, but that just wasn’t true, he kept trying to get me to go, but I was too sick to go.

This is very interesting as my mother has been experiencing new heart issues since my dad died this past December, plus the added stress of moving out of her home. Is there anything that can help with the increased inflammation that causes the inflammatory marker levels to rise?

I have panned the idea of dying of a broken heart until this year. My 96 year old Dad died in January. My 90 year old Mom had always been a strong and forceful person and fairly healthy for her age. It never occurred to me or my siblings that mom’s grief could overwhelm her. It did. Mom died seven months after my Dad. Her decline was gradual but inexorable. Complications from her diabetes increased during this time, along with a precipitous decline in her cognitive ability. My parents knew each other for 70 years and were married for 61 years. You just don’t bounce back from that.

Over 3 years ago, I had broken heart syndrome. I was under tons of stress and I believed it was triggered by having a tooth pulled that morning and the bleeding would not stop. By midnight I knew something was wrong and drove myself to the hospital. I am fully recovered, and my stress level has returned to a normal level. I am thankful I am alive.

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