Can you die of a broken heart?

The recent deaths at the end of 2016 (a year that seems to have taken its share of well-known people from this world) of actresses Carrie Fisher, and a day later her mother Debbie Reynolds, made me recall the deaths of my own parents, who died nine months apart in 2009 (my mother in March, my father in December). It begs a question for me: can someone die of a broken heart? I’ve seen some anecdotal evidence that the death of a spouse/partner or other close person can have an effect on the health of the survivor.

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Image credit: Emerging Gently.

It’s been reported that Reynolds was devastated by her daughter’s death, and her son Todd Fisher had this to say regarding her last moments: “The last thing she said this morning was that she was very, very sad about losing Carrie and that she would like to be with her again.”1 While the relationship between Reynolds and her daughter was at times tense, and they went for long periods without contact, apparently it was close–especially towards the end, and it is quite apparent that Carrie Fisher’s death had a significant impact upon her mother, similar to the effect the death of a spouse has on a surviving spouse.

Now, Reynolds was an elderly woman, 84 years-old, who had recently had a small stroke earlier in the year after an operation, so it’s fair to say that there were other health concerns at play. In my father’s case, he was also elderly (79 years-old), and he had been suffering for several years with heart disease that had gone untreated and undiagnosed (until he was taken to the hospital shortly before his death). In both the case of Reynolds and of my father, there had been strokes. So, it’s fair to say that underlying health issues are the real cause, but are they the only cause, or are there other contributing factors?

What does the evidence say?

My on-line research led me to what appears to be the most comprehensive study on widowhood, entitled The Effect of Widowhood on Mortality by the Causes of Death of Both Spouses by Dr. Felix Elwert and Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis. Their general conclusions were that there is a noticeable effect on the mortality of surviving spouses (often called the ‘Widowhood Effect’). However, there isn’t a universal effect, and that sometimes the cause of death of the predecedent partner has an effect on the surviving partner. The study’s authors sought to look at a wide sample of elderly couples from as many demographic parts of United States society as they could. Much information was derived from U.S. Medicare Vital Statistics files.

Some conclusions from this study, which studied cohorts of elderly couples over a 10 year period:2

  • The death of a wife causes an 18% higher level of all-cause mortality for men; and for women, the level of all-cause mortality is 16%.
  • Certain causes of death of surviving spouses seem to be more affected by the ‘widowhood effect’: COPD, diabetes, accidents, and various other heart and cardiovascular conditions.
  • The cause of death of the predeceasing spouse seems to have an effect on the surviving spouse’s ‘widowhood effect’.

Other material I’ve found indicates a noticeable effect of the emotional and mental health of surviving spouses on their overall health, and conditions such as heart and cardiovascular disease can definitely be affected by things like stress, lack of sleep, loneliness, and other things that may occur with a surviving spouse.

According to Dr. Scott Sharkey, a cardiologist at the Minnesota Heart Institute, doctors have a name for a not-so-subtle phenomenon they’ve observed: Broken Heart Syndrome. It is the effect of a suddenly stressful event on one’s cardiovascular health–with effects similar to that of a heart attack. For the elderly, especially with those who have pre-existing conditions, the effect can be particularly dangerous.3 Research from the University of Glasgow, which studied 4,000 married couples between age 45 to 64, found that widowers and widows had a 30% higher risk of death in the first six months after their spouses had died.4

My conclusions

Loneliness, stress, extreme grief, lack of sleep, all of these things associated with the loss of one’s significant partner have been shown to have a measurable effect on a person’s health. The loss of a spouse is listed as the number one stressor–marking highest on on the stress index scale, with a score of 100.5 So, yes you can die of a broken heart. I saw this with my own father. In almost all cases where a surviving spouse dies shortly after a predeceasing spouse, there are existing underlying conditions, such as cardiovascular conditions (which was the case with my father). These are what usually prove to be fatal. The emotional stress of the loss of a partner serves to accelerate and/or magnify the effects of the pre-existing condition.

It’s important that surviving spouses and family members find emotional supports that will ease them through grief and the upheavals in life that come after the death of a spouse. Regretfully, my father didn’t get a lot of that kind of support, and I fault myself as much as anyone for that. I was still nominally in Christian Science, living on the other side of the continent, and in denial myself about the true impact of my mother’s death, especially from a mental-health perspective. Dad had some support from his church community, but little support or acknowledgement of his grief and the reality of the fact that he had lost his life partner. It had an impact on him that was much larger than any of us who were close to him ever realized. So, it’s important for those close to someone who has suffered the loss of their life partner to acknowledge and validate that person’s loss, to acknowledge their grief, and to support them through that grief process. Will this guarantee a different outcome? I definitely think it can help, but there are no guarantees. When I look at the clinical effects of the stresses of a significant loss, I can only conclude that greater emotional support for the widowed spouse can offer the promise of a better outcome.

____________________

Footnotes:

1Debbie Reynolds dies, age 84, one day after daughter Carrie Fisher.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. n.d. Web. 28 December 2016.

2 Elwert, Felix PhD, and Nicholas A. Christakis, PhD. “The Effect of Widowhood on Mortality by the Causes of Death of Both Spouses.” American Journal of Public Health. 4 February 2008. Web. 29 December 2016.*

3These Are The Statistics.” Widow’s Hope. n.d. Web. 29 December 2016.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

Notes:

* This study was accessed via an archiving website: US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, which directly published the material from American Journal of Public Health. I chose to directly cite the original source, however the abstract cannot be viewed in its entirety there without a password, but can be viewed on the archiving site. My hyperlinks therefore, connect to the US National Library of Medicine archiving site.

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