When actress Carrie Fisher died in January, her mother, Debbie Reynolds, took it especially hard.
“I just want to be with Carrie,” Todd Fisher said were his mother’s last words. Reynolds, 84, died the day after her daughter’s death, reportedly of a stroke.
Was this just a sad coincidence, or can grief really kill a person? Actually, it can, either quickly, as in Reynolds’ case, or over a relatively brief period of time.
Studies have shown that heart attacks and strokes increase at higher-than-expected rates in the month following the death of a loved one, and peak over the following year. According to the Journal of the American Heart Association, a person’s risk of having a heart attack increases by 21 times in the first 24 hours after losing a loved one.
But there are actually two different syndromes at work here.
The first, known as “broken-heart syndrome,” was identified in Japan 25 years ago. The medical term is “stress-induced cardiomyopathy.” The symptoms are the same as a true heart attack, and even show up in blood tests and on the EKG as a heart attack. The difference between the two is in the arteries—open during stress-induced cardiomyopathy, blocked during a classic heart attack—and the fact that the grief-induced damage to the heart can be more extensive than the more localized damage commonly seen in the classic heart attack. In addition, if you survive the “broken-heart” heart damage, the heart will soon return to normal, unlike what happens during a classic heart attack.
Although the term is “broken-heart syndrome,” any kind of sudden shock, physical stress or anxiety can induce the chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, left-arm pain and so on that usually indicates a heart attack. What happens in the stress-induced attack is an abrupt swelling of the left ventricle, brought on by the sudden release of large amounts of dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine. This can cause the heart to malfunction, and even create blood clots which—as is thought to have happened to Reynolds—can then travel to the brain and cause a stroke.
The other grief-related syndrome, often more deadly than broken-heart syndrome, is the long-term effect of grieving on the body. Typically, those who are grieving the loss of a loved one are not only flooded with cortisol and other stress hormones, but the accompanying sadness causes them to eat poorly, neglect exercise, become socially isolated, and suffer from insomnia, all known to suppress the immune system and impact heart health, as well. The effects are more pronounced in older adults, who have less physical ability to fight off the debilitating effects of grief.
Either syndrome can be deadly. If you are experiencing any unusual heart-related symptoms, call 911. If you are subject to intense grief, talk to your primary care concierge physicians at MD 2.0 in Jupiter, Florida. We can help you work through the emotional pain and the resulting physical damage to your body.