When Grief Breaks Your Heart

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BY: Diane Snyder Cowan

CATEGORY: Grief and Loss

Can you die from a broken heart? Yes, you can.

There is a heart condition called stress induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy—commonly referred to as “broken heart syndrome” because it often occurs during periods of high emotional stress and grief.

First recognized by Japanese doctors in the 1990s, the condition is characterized by a weakening of the left ventricle. The heart chamber changes shape, narrowing at the top and ballooning at the bottom. Thankfully it’s reversible.

Still, death during bereavement occurs more often than one might expect. At our hospice, time and again we see cases where spouses die 12 months apart. Recently, we had a situation where a woman had a heart attack at her husband’s funeral. It’s quite sad.

While we can attest to this anecdotally, research confirms our stories.

In a recent study by Carey et al, the authors found that the risk of stress-induced cardiomyopathy is highest in the first month after a death and then slowly declines during the first year. In a previous study (Shah, et al.), the same authors found that good health and material circumstances do no protect older adults from increased mortality rates while grieving the death of a loved one.
The stress of grief has health effects. Common grief reactions like loss of sleep and appetite can suppress the immune system which could exacerbate other medical conditions.

So what can we do?

First, we can be aware that it’s a real risk. We can offer support to older adults during the first few weeks and months after the death of a loved one. In addition to offering support, we need to encourage older adults to seek medical attention and take care of themselves physically as well as emotionally. Many older adults disenfranchise their own grief and need to know that it’s okay to mourn the loss of their life partner. Support is available through grief groups, friends, faith communities and professional counselors.

No one needs to grieve alone.

References:

Carey, Iain M.; Shah, Sunil M.; DeWilde, Stephen; Harris, Tess; Victor, Christina, R.; Cook, Derek G. Increased Risk of Acute Cardiovascular Events After Partner Bereavement: :  A Matched Cohort StudyJAMA Intern Med. Published online February 24, 2014.

Shah, Sunil M.; Carey, Iain M.; Harris, Tess; DeWilde, Stephen; Victor, Christina, R.; Cook, Derek G. Do Good Health and Material Circumstances Protect Older People From the Increased Risk of Death After Bereavement?American Journal of Epidemiology,(2013) 177 (4): 375.

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