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Can a Person Really Die of a Broken Heart?

Medically Approved by Dr. Edward Salko

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Free photo close up portrait of young woman holding a broken heart shape

The concept of dying from a broken heart is a topic much referenced and romanticized in popular culture. It is also something that has been discussed in a fictional context, until now. Scientists have identified the trauma associated with losing a loved one as a factor in an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. This association can be attributed to the added stress bereavement puts on one’s heart doubling the risk of heart attack and stroke. Thus the correlation between depression, disturbed mental health and heart disease, is a condition known as “broken heart” syndrome.

A study conducted by the University of London on individuals who had recently lost a loved one and were 60 years old and above revealed that 16 out of 10,000 participants suffered a heart attack within 30 days of a partner’s death – double the rate for those whose loved ones remained alive.

The risk of an impending heart attack is at its highest 30 days after the loss of a loved one. The loss triggers adverse responses in the body including changes in blood clotting, blood pressure, stress hormone levels, and heart rate. In addition to these physical responses there are psychological factors that contribute to a person’s heart complications. A bereaved individual will often become careless about his or her health and in some cases neglect taking their prescribed medication. Doctors, friends and family must be supportive during this vulnerable time to ensure that the aggrieved individual is cared for after the loss of a loved one.

As Dr. Lain Carey’s explains, “We have seen a marked increase in heart attack or stroke risk in the month after a person’s partner dies which seems likely to be the result of adverse physiological responses associated with acute grief. A better understanding of psychological and social factors associated with acute cardiovascular events may provide opportunities for prevention and improved clinical care.”

Women are more likely to be affected by the broken heart syndrome. Sudden intense chest pains that result from the surge of hormones is common in cases involving women. It is generally seen in cases of a stressful event such as a divorce, breakup, physical separation,, or even in case of a happy shock – like winning in a lottery.

Heart attack and broken heart syndrome: What’s the difference?

Some signs and symptoms of broken heart syndrome differ from those of a heart attack. In broken heart syndrome, symptoms occur suddenly after extreme emotional or physical stress.

Here are some factors unique to broken heart syndrome:

  • EKG (a test that records the heart’s electric activity) results don’t look the same as the EKG results for a person having a heart attack.
  • Blood tests show no signs of heart damage.
  • Tests show no signs of blockages in the coronary arteries.
  • Tests show ballooning and unusual movement of the lower left heart chamber (left ventricle).
  • Recovery time is quick, usually within days or weeks (compared with the recovery time of a month or more for a heart attack).

Once diagnosed with the broken heart syndrome, it is essential that the person schedule follow-up visits with a doctor and be open and honest about their emotional state as it is an important factor in managing their health.

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