By Tricia Drevets
Every now and then, you read a news story about an elderly husband and wife who die within hours of each other. Relatives comment on how devoted they were to each other, and the testimony of how they wanted to be with each other in death is a touching reminder of the power of love.
However, not all stories associated with the phrase “dying of a broken heart” are as sentimental. In fact, some are a disturbing, yet important, reminder of the heart-brain connection.
Scientists believe that intense emotions, such as the grief associated with the death of a loved one, can shock your body into a fatal heart condition. A recent example of what is known as Broken Heart Syndrome is the death of Debbie Reynolds the day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, died.
Reynolds’ son, Todd Fisher, told an interviewer that his mother said, “’I want to be with Carrie.’ And then she was gone.”
As a mother who has experienced the death of a child, I can testify to the debilitating emotional and physical effects of intense grief. In the days and weeks after my eldest son’s death, I experienced lightheadedness, clumsiness, sleeplessness and heart palpitations. I had no idea I was in real danger.
One example is when I was on a quick supermarket errand several days after he died. An otherwise healthy individual, I inexplicably fell to the floor in the aisle. A little dazed and a lot embarrassed, I quickly scrambled up and headed out to my car, refusing to fill out a store accident report and assuring the worried store manager that I was fine.
It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that what I experienced was part of a disorder associated with intense grief. In fact, as the general public found out with the death of Debbie Reynolds, Broken Heart Syndrome is a real thing, and it is dangerous.
According to a 2014 study by researchers from St. George's University of London that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the chance of experiencing a heart attack or a stroke doubles within the first month after a loved one’s death.
What happens to a grief-stricken heart? In Broken Heart Syndrome, the heart muscle temporarily becomes paralyzed, and the left ventricle changes shape. The condition is also known as “Takotsubo,” which is Japanese for “octopus pot” because the heart resembles an octopus trap when the condition is present.
Angiograms reveal that in Broken Heart Syndrome, the heart’s arteries are not blocked as they are with a regular heart attack. They have changed shape. Other symptoms can mimic a heart attack, including chest pain and shortness of breath.
Although most victims of this disorder usually recover, an acute episode – especially in someone, like Reynolds, who had previous heart problems – can lead to cardiac arrest.
During a heart attack, a blockage or a spasm in in an artery cuts off the heart’s oxygen supply. With Broken Heart Syndrome, however, doctors believe that it is a hormone surge that causes the heart to pump irregularly. Since many victims of the disorder are post-menopausal women, doctors theorize that a lack of estrogen is a contributing factor.
However, the condition can affect anyone of any age. Here are two examples:
- In 2012, Lindsay Clift, a 29-year-old British hairstylist, died just hours after her child was delivered stillborn. Her doctors believe her intense grief triggered an adrenaline surge that led to cardiac arrest.
- Marcus Ringrose, a 60-year-old man with no history of heart disease, succumbed to heart failure 12 days after the funeral of his wife, actress Mary Tamm, in 2012. Doctors believe the stress induced high levels of adrenaline that affected his heart.
According to Dr. Sunil Shah, one of the authors of the St. George’s University study, intense emotions, such as those caused by grief, can trigger blood clotting and fluctuations in heart rate and blood pressure. This stress and the resulting release of stress hormones "shock" the heart, leading to heart muscle weakness.
Broken Heart Syndrome is just one example of a heart condition that women experience more frequently than men experience. Scientists don’t know why the disorder affects women more often than men, but they theorize that it has to do with the fact that women’s brains and bodies process emotions differently than men’s do.
What can we take away from the sudden death of Debbie Reynolds and this newfound interest in Broken Heart Syndrome? We can use it as a way to learn more about the risk of heart disease in women.
According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the number one killer of women. Yet, most women do not know the warning signs of a heart attack or stroke and, therefore, they often ignore them until it is too late.
Symptoms of a heart attack in women
Some of the main symptoms of a heart attack – chest pain or tightness in the chest -- are the same in men and women, but here are the typical symptoms in women:
- Pressure or pain in the center of the chest. It may last for more than a few minutes, and it can come and go.
- Pain in one or both of the arms, the jaw, back, neck or stomach.
- Shortness of breath that may or may not accompany chest discomfort.
- Cold sweat
According to some estimates, in the days after the death of someone close to you, the risk of suffering a heart attack goes up by 21 times. For the next six weeks, the risk is still six times greater than normal. Usually, after six to eight weeks, the hormone levels even out and return to a more normal range.
If you or someone you love is experiencing intense grief, it is important to recognize the risk of Broken Heart Syndrome and to seek medical help when necessary.
Maintaining a healthy diet and getting enough exercise can be a big help in combating Broken Heart Syndrome. I know that getting outside for my daily walk or hike made a big difference in my health and helped keep me somewhat sane.
Since grief never ends but continues to hit you in waves, nutrition and exercise continue to be a way for me to deal with my acute loss.
We never know when the unexpected can happen. As we begin a New Year, you can resolve to be there for someone who is grieving and to offer the love and support he or she needs to get through the intense emotional and physical roller coaster ride of grief.