Yes, you can die of a broken heart. Here’s how
By ABC News Breakfast
When Carrie Fisher died in late 2016 the film world went into collective mourning.
The grief was compounded the next day when her mother, Debbie Reynolds, also died suddenly.
For many, it was a simple fact that Ms Reynolds died of a broken heart — a sad but understandable event in the face of such tragedy.
But how likely is this? And is it medically possible to die this way?
Australian heart surgeon Nikki Stamp says yes, and the term — takotsubo — is named after a Japanese octopus pot.
So what is going on here?
Broadly speaking, “heartbreak” is an emotional term that we attribute to the physical symptoms of being broken hearted. Yes, you can die of a broken heart.
And that’s a really big spectrum.
“What we know is that for some people the stress of losing a loved one, or any kind of stressful event in your life, does precipitate a whole bunch of reactions in the physical body as well as in your mind that can cause disease and sometimes cause someone to pass away,” Dr Stamp says.
Research also shows that in the first 30 days after a loved one dies, your risk of dying too is significantly increased.
What physically happens in these cases?
It comes back to stress. And having a lot of it.
“What that does is do things like increase your heart rate and blood pressure, makes your heart work faster, makes your blood sticky, ruins your immune system,” Dr Stamp said.
“That’s really, really an important part of how you deal with stress.
“It’s certainly something that we’re discovering more and more lately.”
This doesn’t sound exactly like ‘dying of a broken heart’
Well, hang on.
While the stress of grief may bring on general health impacts like to die of a broken heart, there is a legitimate and specific medical condition called “taktsubo cardiomyopathy” — or heartbreak syndrome — that doctors say is dying of a broken heart.
But it’s incredibly rare.
“What happens is in an acutely stressful event … there is a massive rush of adrenaline and it causes something similar to a heart attack,” Dr Stamp said.
“When it comes to takotsubo, we do actually see all of the tests that point to a heart attack.
It was first described in Japan in 1990 after a patient’s heart was said to resemble a Japanese octopus pot, and it has only been recognised in Australia for a bit over 10 years.
Dr Stamp said takotsubo is rare, usually affects post-menopausal women, and not everyone who suffers from it will die.
There have been some notable occurrences.
In the week after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake that killed 185 people, more than 20 patients suffered takotsubo.
“It was just this surge of a disease that we really don’t see all that often,” Dr Stamp said.
Is more research needed here?
It’s happening, and researchers are changing the way we think about heartbreak in a medical sense.
“For example, in the last few years depression has come out as a standalone risk factor for heart disease,” Dr Stamp said.
There is also more research on how depression not only affects the onset of heart issues, but also how it can affect your recovery.
“Medicine in that regard is becoming a little bit more holistic,” Dr Stamp said.
“We realise that disease doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that’s really, really important.”
This article was originally published on ABC News on March 8, 2018.