Is it possible to die from a broken heart? Absolutely, broken heart syndrome can definitely be fatal.
Are we seeing more cases of broken heart syndrome during the Covid-19 pandemic? Yes, there has been an uptick in cases of the syndrome since the virus has become a worldwide killer itself.
Dr. Ilan Wittstein defined the condition: “Broken heart syndrome, also known as stress cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo syndrome, occurs when a person experiences sudden acute stress that can rapidly weaken the heart muscle.”
The stress Dr. Wittstein referred to can be either emotional or physical. Grief, fear, extreme anger, and surprise are some of the emotional triggers; low blood sugar, high fever, difficulty breathing, and seizures are physical causal agents.
Symptoms of broken heart are similar to classic heart attacks — chest pain, sweating, dizziness, shortness of breath, fainting, and irregular heartbeat.
Dr. Ankur Kalra of the Cleveland Clinic explained the relationship of the syndrome and the virus: “The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about multiple levels of stress in people’s lives across the country and world. People are not only worried about themselves or their families becoming ill, they are dealing with economic and emotional issues, societal problems and potential loneliness and isolation. The stress can have physical effects on our bodies and our hearts, as evidenced by the increasing diagnoses of stress cardiomyopathy we are experiencing.”
Research recently conducted at the Cleveland Clinic found a significantly higher number of broken heart cases after the onset of the virus this year — interestingly, none of these patients tested positive for the virus.
Dr. Grant Reed, also of the clinic, emphasized that individuals feeling overwhelmed by stress should reach out to a healthcare provider; he recommended exercise, meditation, and appropriately socially distanced contact with family and friends to help relieve anxiety.
Broken heart syndrome was first identified in Japan in 1990. Cardiologists there began to recognize similarities among patients, who, with no previous heart disease, presented in emergency rooms with chest pains. Their hearts were ballooning in size apparently due to an excessive release of stress hormones. Furthermore, these incidents were happening hard on the heels of sudden shocks, often the unexpected death of a loved one.
The condition was initially described as Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy because the swelling heart resembled the shape of a Japanese lobster trap — a Takotsubo.
Studies have now demonstrated that within three months of a loved one’s demise, the survivor has somewhere between a 30 to 90 percent chance of joining their partner in the hereafter. Causes of death vary, but the broken heart syndrome is among them.
In his acclaimed bestseller, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Professor Robert Sapolsky explored the different ways humans and members of the animal kingdom process stress.
He noted that for animals like zebras, stress is an acute physical experience — running from a half-starved lion, it’s essential to “sprint across the savanna at top speed” or you’ll end up being dinner.
“For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is about a short-term crisis, after which it’s over with or you are over with,” Sapolsky wrote. Humans, on the other hand, absorb physiological and psychological trauma – the pain becomes part of our wiring, often leading to detrimental consequences.
Pointing to the work of psychiatrist George Vaillant, Sapolsky posited that there is hope to find “health, contentment and longevity in old age.” Vaillant’s long-term case studies underscore the value of the following lifestyle: plenty of exercise, minimal alcohol use, no smoking, controlled body weight, a stable marriage, and solid coping skills (aided by strong social connections). Of course this list sounds familiar — who hasn’t had a mother, father, teacher, or other authority figure pass on these ideas in one form or another? Easy to say, hard to do.
When it comes to dealing with the loss of a loved one, particularly a spouse, there is a host of grief recovery materials available: grief groups and therapy can be effective for those who find themselves in the throes of a broken heart.
Professor Emily Honea recently wrote an insightful piece about grief which emphasized that sometimes you don’t have to move on after a death — moving forward, carrying those fond memories with you in a tender, positive frame of mind, might be the best way to come to terms with a broken heart.