Can You Die from a Broken Heart?

Q. My grandmother died many years ago, when I was twelve years old. I’ll never forget seeing her in her hospital bed and muttering the last words I would ever say to her. I will also never forget how my grandfather died shortly after. After all, they had been married for more than 50 years. She was a kind soul who listened to him, and the one who did the cooking, cleaning, sewing, and just about everything around the house, and he didn’t know how to live without her. It was a mystery how he died so quickly, since he seemed to be in decent health. I’m beginning to think he lost his will when my grandmother was gone.

I recently read in the news how former President George H.W. Bush was hospitalized just days after attending his wife, Barbara Bush’s, funeral. A family spokesperson said that Bush, 93, has contracted an infection that spread to his blood, which can be serious. Media reports say the Bush family had been worried about how he would handle losing his wife of 73 years. Could his reaction be similar to what happened to my grandfather when my grandmother died? Hopefully, he will pull through, but can someone really die from a broken heart? If a loved one has a broken heart, are there any resources/tips we can use to console them so they recover from the devastation and regain a sense of purpose?

A. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or Broken Heart Syndrome, is actually a real thing, and it occurs when an emotional stressor is so severe that it actually causes physical damage to the heart. The ailment was first discovered in 1990 in Japan, when doctors discovered that those experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack after the loss of a loved one later showed no signs of the signature blood clots indicating that someone had a heart attack.

Experts say this may explain why some couples who have been together for many years — or family members who have been particularly close — often die within days of each other. In fact, studies out of the Harvard School of Public Health found that someone who loses their spouse has a 66% greater chance of dying within the first three months after the loss than someone who hasn’t lost a partner.

Examples of those who have passed away shortly after a beloved family member have included Johnny Cash, who died just months after his longtime wife, June, died in 2003. In late 2016, Debbie Reynolds died only a day after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher. And just last year, an elderly couple married during World War II, George and Jean Spear, died within hours of each other at a hospital in Canada, a few weeks after celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary.

David Kessler, a grief expert and founder of Grief.com, believes that broken heart syndrome is absolutely a true medical condition. “Grief is a reflection of the love. And the loss of a love so deep can actually be heartbreaking” he said. When it comes to the President Bush and Barbara, “If two hearts have beaten in rhythm for 73 years, it’s not surprising that when Barbara leaves, that George considers following. They have a love story that not even a little death can stop.”

Is Broken Heart Syndrome Always Fatal?

According to the American Heart Association, in broken heart syndrome, a part of your heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump well, while the rest of your heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions. The bad news is that broken heart syndrome can lead to severe, short-term heart muscle failure. The good news is that broken heart syndrome is usually treatable. Most people who experience it make a full recovery within weeks, and they’re at low risk for it happening again (although in some cases in can be fatal).

What to Look For: Signs and Symptoms

The most common signs and symptoms of broken heart syndrome are angina (chest pain) and shortness of breath. You can experience these things even if you have no history of heart disease.

Irregular heartbeats, or cardiogenic shock, may also occur with broken heart syndrome. Cardiogenic shock is a condition in which a suddenly weakened heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs, and it can be fatal if it isn’t treated right away. (When people die from heart attacks, cardiogenic shock is the most common cause of death.)

Heart attack and broken heart syndrome: What’s the difference?

Some signs and symptoms of broken heart syndrome differ from those of heart attack. In broken heart syndrome, symptoms occur suddenly after extreme emotional or physical stress. Here are some other differences:

• EKG (a test that records the heart’s electric activity) results for broken heart syndrome don’t look the same as the EKG results for a person having a heart attack.
• Blood tests show no signs of heart damage.
• Tests show no signs of blockages in the coronary arteries.
• Tests show ballooning and unusual movement of the lower left heart chamber (left ventricle).
• Recovery time is quick, usually within days or weeks (compared with the recovery time of a month or more for a heart attack).

If you or a loved one has symptoms of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or a heart attack, be sure to dial 9-1-1 without delay!

Know Someone Who Lost a Loved One?– A Resource to Help

Coping with the loss of a loved one is always difficult. Those who live alone may feel a loss of purpose and a feeling of emptiness. When a person you love dies, it’s natural to feel sorrow, express grief, and expect friends and family to provide understanding and comfort.

The grief process is as individual as the person, lasting days for one person, years for another. The process typically begins with denial, which offers protection until individuals can realize their loss. Some people feel anger and question why the loss occurred. They may also feel guilt about what they did or did not do; and they may even feel that it is inappropriate for them to be so upset. After these feelings subside, you may experience true sadness or grief. Acceptance occurs when they accept the reality of their loss and remember their loved one with decreasing sadness.

It’s critical that seniors who lose a loved one take immediate steps to cope with their loss and regain a sense of purpose. To help those who have experienced loss, I have a “Loss of a Loved One” page on the law firm’s website. Included on the page are just some of the books that have had a profound influence on my spiritual journey, shaping my world view and my understanding of life, death, and our spiritual life between physical lives. Regardless of your current religious or spiritual views, if you have ANY doubt whatsoever about the reality of eternal life, I encourage you to read some or all of these books. If you have very limited time, start with either one of the first two listed.

Plan for Yourself and Your Loved Ones

If something suddenly happened to you, would your family be prepared? If you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning, and Incapacity Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, call us to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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