Dying of a Broken Heart

Is grief powerful enough to kill? The world is mourning the death of actress Debbie Reynolds who herself was in mourning following the death of her daughter Carrie Fisher just one day earlier. Could that grief have played a part in the stroke that killed her? “I was not surprised to hear of her death,” says Katherine Supiano, PhD, LCSW, FT, Director of the Caring Connections Grief Program at the University of Utah. “This is an uncommon phenomenon, but it does happen. Even the American Heart Association has recognized ‘broken heart syndrome’ as a cause of death following the death of someone close.”

The American Heart Association is not the only organization that has looked into “broken heart syndrome.” A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2014 found older adults who lost a partner saw their risk of dying from a heart attack or a stroke double in the 30 days following. One reason may be that stress raises the level of cortisol in body. Increased levels of cortisol have been linked to cardiovascular death. Other hormones may play a role as well. “Emotional stressors can also lead to a significant release in adrenaline,” says John Ryan, MD, a cardiologist with University of Utah Health Care. “This can have an impact on the cardiovascular system.”

Physical changes in the body are not solely responsible for the increased risk though. People make behavioral changes while under stress or suffering from grief. These may impact their health. “They may not be taking care of themselves,” says Ryan. “They may not be taking medications for underlying conditions, or they may be eating poorly, or start smoking again. All of these can raise their risks of cardiovascular problems.”

The nature of the relationship lost may also be a factor. A close caregiving bond may be harder to lose, especially if that caregiving relationship has been long standing – like that of a mother with a child. “We all know that Carrie Fisher had several difficulties in her life,” says Supiano. “Reynolds may have been in the role of emotional caregiver. When that role was no longer available the stress may have become overwhelming contributing to her death.”

Supiano says that in situations like these it might not just be grief and stress, but also a feeling that now caregiving is no longer needed that the work of the caregiver is done. “We do hear people say that,” she says. “And in some cases, very quietly, their lives end.”

While grief may make a person feel they want to die – the vast majority do not. The levels of stress hormones will dissipate over time, and behavioral patterns will return to normal. Life will go on. “People are hard wired to be able to grieve,” says Supiano. “The majority of people are actually highly resilient and given enough time, and social support most people navigate this pretty well.”

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