Yes, It's Possible to Die From a Broken Heart

Earl “Frank” Brosnahan, Jr., Kate Spade’s father, died on June 20, 2018, at age 89 — less than 24 hours before her funeral, People reported

“He had been in failing health of late and was heartbroken over the recent death of his beloved daughter. He was at home and surrounded by family at the time of his passing,” a statement obtained by People read.

This isn’t the first time a parent has died soon after their child; in December 2016, Debbie Reynolds died one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher. But is this just a coincidence, or can someone really die of a broken heart? We asked two leading cardiologists to weigh in.

Is it possible to die from a broken heart?

In short, yes. The technical term for it is “stress cardiomyopathy,” Dr. John Bahadorani, a cardiologist at Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, tells SheKnows, but it’s also known as “apical ballooning syndrome,” “takotsubo cardiomyopathy” and “broken heart syndrome.” 

The onset of stress cardiomyopathy is frequently but not always triggered by intense emotional or physical stress, like the death of relatives (particularly if unexpected), domestic abuse, arguments, catastrophic medical diagnoses, devastating financial or gambling losses, natural disasters or acute medical illness, Bahadorani explains.

According to Dr. Gregory S. Thomas, a cardiologist and the medical director of cardiovascular programs at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute in Fountain Valley, California, the condition can result from an apparent stress-induced hormonal imbalance that is poorly characterized, but can cause chest pain and transient heart impairment. But death from broken heart syndrome is uncommon, he tells SheKnows.

In addition, a study published in 1997 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found a dramatic increase in the number of deaths from heart disease — primarily heart attacks — on the day of the Northridge earthquake, Jan. 17, 1994, Thomas notes. 

“Heart disease deaths in Los Angeles County averaged 73 deaths per day on the days prior to the 6.7 [magnitude on the Richter scale*] earthquake but spiked to 123 deaths the day of the earthquake,” he explains. “Other investigators found proportionately similar increases after the 6.6 Athens earthquake in 1981 and the 6.9 Kobe earthquake in Japan.”

What exactly happens to your body when you have broken heart syndrome?

The most common symptom of stress cardiomyopathy is chest pain, while other patients present with shortness of breath or syncope (passing out episodes), Bahadorani notes. 

“Some patients develop symptoms and signs of heart failure, tachyarrhythmias (including ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation), bradyarrhythmias, sudden cardiac arrest or significant mitral regurgitation,” he explains. 

Approximately 10 percent of patients with stress cardiomyopathy develop symptoms and signs of cardiogenic shock, such as hypotension, abnormal mental status, cold extremities, oliguria, or respiratory distress, Bahadorani adds.

In older persons, emotion-related heart problems are more likely related to the stress hormones of norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline) causing a heart attack than stress cardiomyopathy, Thomas explains. 

“These stress hormones make the heart muscle work extra hard, and if atherosclerosis has built up in the heart arteries, this can cause a heart attack and death because of the increased demand on the heart,” he adds. “Another pathway that can occur with stress is caused by these same stress hormones. A sudden increase in norepinephrine and epinephrine can aggravate atherosclerotic blockages in the heart arteries, in some cases causing disruption of the blockage and closure of the heart artery to block off flow to part of the heart.”

The good news is that most people survive stress cardiomyopathy; however, the risks of severe in-hospital complications are similar to those of patients with heart attacks, Bahadorani says. People who survive the acute episode typically recover within one to four weeks, he adds. 

This highlights the importance of taking care of yourself and others, even in times of grief or when everything may seem overwhelming.

* The Richter scale measures the strength of an earthquake on a scale of 1 (minor) to 10 or higher (devastating, though nothing over 9.5 has ever been recorded). 

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