Can you die of a broken heart?
“Because misery and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart—you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine.” — Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights is well regarded as one of the most famous love stories of our times. In it, it seems that nearly every character dies of a broken heart. But is this highly romanticized fiction or simply a plot device based in reality?
“Dying of a broken heart is very real for many couples who have become deeply entrenched in one another’s lives,” says Dr. Ajay Baddi, cardiologist with the Advocate Heart Institute at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. “I’ve seen this happen in my own family—when one spouse passes, the other passes very quickly after, usually within weeks or months.”
Dr. Baddi says the science behind what’s commonly known as broken heart syndrome is not well-understood, but is believed to strike even a healthy surviving partner. The medical term for the syndrome is stress-induced cardiomyopathy. The condition, Dr. Baddi says, is thought to be brought on by the stress caused by the grief of losing a years-long love.
“It’s not an unusual story,” he says. “When a couple is married for decades, their whole lives revolve around one another. When one dies, it’s like losing a part of your body.”
He says the stress hormones induced by the sudden grief cause portions of the heart to temporarily enlarge, affecting its ability to pump. Meanwhile, other areas of the heart are functioning normally or even more forcefully contracting to compensate for the affected areas. As a result, the strain can often cause heart attack-like symptoms. Testing can show rhythms typical of a heart attack; however, there’s no evidence of a direct cause for the attack, such as a blocked artery.
Dr. Baddi says women are more often affected by broken heart syndrome than men. And the condition may not just be brought on by the death of a beloved partner.
“It’s the stress that’s thought to cause the condition, so any stressful event can cause it,” he says. “People have been reported to have had similar heart issues, reported as heart attacks, when going through any sudden stressful situation, like a break-up or even something as mundane to most people as going to the dentist.”
And it’s not just bad stress that can cause a broken heart. Good stress, like winning the lottery—can cause broken heart syndrome, as well.
Dr. Baddi says the most common symptoms of broken heart syndrome are chest pain and shortness of breath. In addition, irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, and cardiogenic shock—when the heart is so weakened it can’t pump enough blood to sustain the body—are also possible and can be fatal. These symptoms can be experienced even if you don’t have a personal history of heart disease, he says.
Though broken heart syndrome can be severe enough that the surviving partner passes due heart failure, it is, in most cases treatable with medication, Dr. Baddi says.
“Most people who are diagnosed with stress-induced cardiomyopathy are able to make a full recovery within weeks,” he says. “The condition is certainly romanticized in fiction—like Wuthering Heights—but we’re understanding more and more about it as research continues.”
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