Is "Broken Heart Syndrome" Real?

February is American Heart Month and the month when we celebrate Valentine’s Day with our sweetheart and other loved ones. Sadly, research shows a connection between the loss of a person we love and an increased risk of certain heart problems.

Sad senior man holding his heart

It's a poignant story the news media can't resist: An elderly person passes away, and their spouse or other loved one dies shortly thereafter. Most recently, the deaths one day apart of actress Carrie Fisher and her mom, Debbie Reynolds, caught the attention of many. And the death of Johnny Cash shortly after that of his wife June Carter Cash often was portrayed as death by a broken heart.

But are cases like that mere coincidence, or can a person truly suffer a literal "broken heart"? According to heart experts, there may be something to it. The European Society of Cardiology (ESC) says that broken heart syndrome commonly occurs after a person experiences severe emotional distress after a sad or stressful event, such as a death or health crisis. The American College of Cardiology (ACC) notes that cases also rise in areas that have suffered a natural disaster.

The ESC experts describe broken heart syndrome as "a sudden temporary weakening of the heart muscles that causes the left ventricle of the heart to balloon out at the bottom while the neck remains narrow." (Another name doctors use for the condition is takotsubo syndrome, because the shape of the heart resembles a Japanese octopus trap — "tako" for octopus, "tsubo" for trap.) Symptoms include chest pains and breathlessness. ACC experts say, "Episodes are thought to be driven by the sympathetic response and surges of adrenaline in the body, similar to the well-known fight-or-flight reaction."

The experts report that although broken heart syndrome can be fatal, most people recover. It's important to seek medical help right away to ensure the correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

In a related study published in the journal Open Heart, researchers found that people who have recently lost a spouse or partner are 41 percent more likely to develop atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that raises the risk of stroke and heart failure. The effect can last for up to a year.

Is grief bad for our health?

Grief is the complicated mental and physical process through which we deal with intense emotions after a loss. It is natural and necessary.

There was a long-held belief that all bereaved people move through a certain set of stages. We now know that each of us experiences grief in our own way, but there is a common progression through an initial sense of numbness or unreality that can last from several hours to several days, followed by a profound sense of loss. To grieve is to feel that loss and come to terms with it. This stage of acute grief for a close loved one can last from a few days to many months, depending on the relationship and circumstances.

It is common for those suffering acute grief to exhibit signs of depression: loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, sadness, restlessness and lack of interest in life.

Experts offer this advice to people who are grieving:

Don't try to suppress your feelings. The process of facing your emotions moves the grief process forward. Set aside enough time to think about it. Write down your feelings.

Sad senior woman in support group

A support group can be a valuable setting to share your feelings with others who know what you're going through.

Share your feelings with family and friends with whom you feel comfortable and safe. Professional counselors, clergy members or grief support groups also can provide a safe and caring atmosphere in which to examine and deal with your feelings of grief and loss.

Learn more about the process. Many good books and videos are available to help you understand what you are experiencing. Some include "how-to" suggestions, and others offer personal narratives of people who have been where you are.

Take care of yourself physically. To protect not only your heart, but also your general health and well-being, take care of your body. Eat balanced meals and try to get adequate sleep. Exercise is especially helpful to increase your energy level and raise the level of the chemicals in your brain that create a feeling of well-being.

Avoid alcohol and other substances not prescribed by your doctor. These may temporarily numb emotional pain, but they may prolong and complicate your grief.

Get back into life, but don't push yourself. Following a fairly normal routine as soon as you can is good for processing grief, raising your spirits and avoiding isolation. But don't try to do too much. You might already be burdened with tasks you must do when a loved one passes. It's fine to say no at this time.

Be kind and patient to yourself. Healing from grief takes time. Your grief may not look like the grief of others around you. You may be surprised at what a long and complex process it is. Do what you need to do, as long as you are making progress.

The stages of grief do not pass overnight. With a major loss, most people go through the heaviest part of grieving during the course of a year. Sometimes a person gets "stuck" in the grieving process, and may be unable to throw off the sense of sorrow enough to actively reengage in life; this may result in clinical depression. If this happens to you or a loved one, make sure you seek the counsel of a professional who is experienced with treating the grief that accompanies significant losses.

A person who is able to acknowledge that an important loss has occurred and to do the hard work of grieving will be a healthier person in the long run. Grieving the loss is the way that we go on to the next step of our lives and toward healing.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.