Broken Heart Syndrome: Is It Real?

Losing a loved one can be fatal

Posted Mar 20, 2016

Source: CORAZON, by Vinicio, Wikipedia Commons

You may think it sounds melodramatic or even corny, but my own physician believes in the existence of something called "broken heart syndrome."

I had been telling him about the recent death of my sister-in-law, only three months after her husband. They had been married for 70 years. He surprised me by saying that it was more common than one might suppose. "Especially in long-term relationships. One dies, the other soon follows."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but what I gather from the conversation with my doctor and further reading on the subject of broken heart syndrome, which is also called "stress-induced cardiomyopathy," has both a mental and a physical aspect. An emotional shock––the sudden loss of a spouse, for example––can "stun" the heart and cause an otherwise healthy person to feel as if he or she is having a heart attack, complete with shortness of breath and chest pains. Although any and all such symptoms should be taken seriously and the sufferer seen immediately by a doctor, in the case of broken heart syndrome, a physical examination will reveal no evidence of blood clots or blocked coronary arteries, and most people recover quickly, often in a few minutes or hours.

But not everyone.

At greater risk for long term effects, and even death, are the elderly. And elderly women, such as my 92-year old sister-in-law, particularly. Researchers at the National Institute of Health (NIH) are just beginning to explore the reasons why more women than men suffer and even die from a "broken heart."

Is it because women are supposedly more sensitive, emotional and sentimental? Or does that old label, the "weaker sex," still apply to us? I don't know the answer to those questions, and the NIH says it can happen to men and women alike, although women––especially older ones––do appear more vulnerable, possibly due to post-menopausal hormone changes.

It also seems that hormones common to both sexes may play a part in triggering some of the same symptoms, but in different situations. Take those commonly known as the "flight or fight" hormones secreted by our adrenaline glands when we are in imminent danger—real or imagined—in order to facilitate a quick and forceful reaction. The rush of hormones into the bloodstream, called a hormone "surge," may sometimes overwhelm or "stun" the heart and cause injury and even death.

The phenomenon of something we now call "broken heart syndrome" is relatively new, first recognized in this country in the early 1990's. That may have been when they put a more scientific name to it, but haven't there always been lovers who "died of a broken heart" following the death of someone they couldn't live without? No matter what you call it, even animals (elephants, for example) will grieve over a lost member of their herd to the point of choosing to linger and die with it rather than leave the body behind.

Now I'm wondering why medical science only recently recognized what the writers of books and plays portraying loving relationships have known all along. We've been saying for ages that a broken heart can lead to death.

Think Romeo and Juliet.