You Can Actually Die of a Broken Heart — Here’s the Science

An antique image of a heart diagram depicting the names of the parts
An antique image of a heart diagram depicting the names of the parts

My grandfather died 17 years ago in April 2002. After he passed away, my grandma came to live with us. She had severe dementia that affected her speech. She did not communicate with lucid, complete sentences. I might say “Hi, Grandma,” and she would respond with “Tippy, tippy, tippy.”

She only spoke coherently when she talked about my grandpa. Sitting in front of the television watching The Lawrence Welk Show, she turned to me and said “I miss him so much.” If prompted, she wouldn’t say it again, and her speech returned to unintelligible.

Other family members reported similar experiences. My aunt recalled another instance while sitting with my grandma on the porch. Sitting without talking, my grandma turned to her and said “It was the worst day of my life.” We think she meant the day my grandpa passed away.

My grandma died in December 2002, less than eight months after my grandpa. We say she died of a broken heart. We never realized how accurate that probably was.

Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy

Our emotions have a direct physical effect on our heart. Studies show grief can cause abnormalities in the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates unconscious functions while the body is at rest — i.e. breathing, heartbeat, digestion, healing, cell repair, etc.

This results in the weakening, sometimes permanent weakening of the cardial tissue.

When we experience stress, our blood vessels constrict. If we experience extreme stress for a sustained period of time, the constant constricted blood vessels cause blood pressure regulation problems, arrhythmia, and break down of our fight or flight instincts resulting in maladaptive stress responses. In other words, events that would not cause a stress response under normal conditions, cause a stress response. Stress responses release cortisol — the stress hormone.

Even the heart itself inflames.

medical pictures comparing a healthy heart to a takotsubo heart and an image of a takotsubo pot or octopus trap
medical pictures comparing a healthy heart to a takotsubo heart and an image of a takotsubo pot or octopus trap
Image taken from TED.

The word ‘takotsubo’ translates to ‘octopus pot’ in Japanese — a pot that doesn’t look like an octopus, but was rather used to trap octopuses. In grief and in chronic stress, our hearts can inflame causing a similar shape to the ‘octopus pot.’ The inflammation makes the heart work harder leading to its breakdown.

How to Prevent/Treat Broken Heart Syndrome

People who experience Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy might feel like they’re having a heart attack with chest pain and shortness of breath. Individuals may spend up to a week in the hospital, and doctors usually prescribe beta blockers, angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and diuretics.

Outside of western pharmaceuticals, coping with grief effectively might be the best medicine. Listening/playing music, journaling, spending time with friends and family, distraction, exercising, spiritual practice, counseling, and support groups are positive ways of coping with stress and sadness.

Negative coping mechanisms like drug and alcohol use might put a person at greater risk of Broken Heart Syndrome because of the substances’ direct effects and because the depression and stress isn’t being worked through, creating a longer path to recovery.

From a more holistic front, an act as simple as daily deep breathing sessions can improve function of the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce the risk of cardiac events.

TL;DR

  • Stress/grief can seriously impact our heart tissue.
  • Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is also known as Broken Heart Syndrome.
  • Positive coping mechanisms for grief can prevent it.
  • As little as deep breathing exercises can mitigate the risk.

We can never know for sure, but my grandma probably did die of a broken heart. If you or a loved one is experiencing grief or extreme stress, don’t go through it alone. A support network to help you cope is the best medicine for a broken heart and the best prevention for a literal broken heart.

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Author. Playwright. Poet. Activist.

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