On Valentine’s Day, the world celebrates love. But it’s easy to forget that Cupid’s arrow can cut, too.
Indeed, my girlfriend recently recounted the tale of a couple she knew. The husband passed away following a long bout with illness. Days later, his widow – who seemed to be in relatively good health – died, too.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard a story like this. But can a person really die of a broken heart?
Dr. Prescott Prescribes
We humans are creatures of selective memory. Especially when it appeals to our sense of romanticism.
So, when we hear of elderly spouses who die within a week of one another, we’re more prone to remember – and ascribe it to a broken heart. Meanwhile, we overlook the fact that people in their 80s or 90s could pass away within a short time of one another simply because of their age and health.
We also tend to forget all the wives (and occasional husbands) who live for years beyond their spouses’ deaths.
That said, in rare cases, grief alone appears capable of causing coronary events. The most notable example is known, aptly, as broken-heart syndrome. (It’s also called Takotsubo syndrome, but that’s less evocative, at least in English.)
Although not well understood, doctors hypothesize the condition is brought about by a rush of stress hormones following a traumatic event, causing a temporary weakening of the heart muscle. While the syndrome can strike any heart, most victims are women, and most are middle-aged or older.
Thousands of cases have been reported. But fatalities appear to be extremely uncommon.
A Journal of the American Medical Association study compared 30,000 people aged 60 to 89 whose partners had just died with 83,000 people the same age whose partners hadn’t. While researchers found the bereaved had an increased chance of coronary event in the month following partners’ deaths, the difference was tiny: 0.16 percent risk of heart attack or stroke versus 0.08 percent.
While Neil Young sang that “only love can break your heart,” I wouldn’t treat that as a medical opinion. Don’t be afraid to let love rule!