You may not realize it, but we all tend to grow up rationalizing we're immortal. That “it’ll never happen to me” state of mind is not so much naivety as it is a coping mechanism for the heartache we can only imagine enduring until tragic loss becomes a reality, and we’re forced to. Loss is, unfortunately, something we'll all experience at some point or another. Most of us muddle through, mourn, and move on, but for some, the pain is too great to withstand. It can become so intense, in fact, that people wonder, can you die of a broken heart? According to science, broken heart syndrome is a real diagnosis, and many people have passed as a result of their heartache.
According to the American Heart Association, broken heart syndrome, otherwise known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is a “reaction to a surge of stress hormones that can be caused by an emotionally stressful event,” such as a death, divorce, a breakup, betrayal, or romantic rejection. We’re human; we grow attachments. Our loved ones are a part of us, and when someone or something that becomes such a vital part of your life passes, a significant part of us leaves with them.
For example, a woman reportedly suffered from broken heart syndrome when her dog passed.
The Washington Post reports that after 61-year-old Joanie Simpson showed classic signs of a heart attack one morning, she was soon airlifted from a local emergency room to a Houston, Texas hospital where doctors diagnosed her with takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome. According to Simpson, her physical ailments closely followed the recent death of her Yorkshire terrier.
My friends and I, being the socially awkward introverts that we are, often joke that we’d much rather prefer animal to human companionship any day. But there's truth in jest, as it’s certainly not unheard of for household animals to take on the role of a beloved family member, rather than just a cat to pet or a dog to protect your home. Oftentimes we care and love for our pets the same way we would a spouse, sibling, or child. So when someone experiences the loss of a pet, the grieving process can often measure up to the mourning of a human.
Simpson told The Washington Post,
The kids were grown and out of the house, so [our dog] was our little girl.
It was such a horrendous thing to have to witness. When you're already kind of upset about other things, it's like a brick on a scale. I mean, everything just weighs on you.
It's worth noting that broken heart syndrome is most common in elderly people.
I’m willing to bet you’ve heard at least one or two stories regarding women and/or men dying weeks, days, even hours after their spouses have passed (cue that tear-jerking end scene of The Notebook for reference). Otherwise known as the “widowhood effect,” Felix Elwert, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Healthline that broken heart syndrome is actually a social condition, and that it’s almost as if you can “catch death from your spouse.”
Personally, I'm not sure how I feel about thinking of death as something you can "catch," as if it were a common cold. But I digress.
Apparently, the broken heart syndrome diagnosis is one that, despite over 150 years of research on the subject, continues to puzzle medical professionals. In his own research, Elwert has concluded that dying of a broken heart can absolutely be romantic, but it can also be a result of practical losses such as financial stability (whether or not social security can meet living expenses), material services (if one spouse was generally the caretaker), as well as physical and emotional stress.
Interestingly enough, the same heart attack-like symptoms are seen in what is referred to as "happy heart syndrome."
According to an article published in the June 2017 issue of the journal Circulation, an overwhelming surge of happiness can also lead to symptoms mimicking a heart attack. This is known as “happy heart syndrome.”
Moreover, during a study that was published in the March 2016 issue of the European Heart Journal, scientists observed 1,750 takotsubo syndrome patients to compare those who experienced feelings of intense happiness and sorrow leading up to their physical symptoms. Researchers concluded that "despite their distinct nature, happy and sad life events may share similar final common emotional pathways." In other words, both extreme grief and joy can trigger the syndrome.
Dr. Chintan Desai, a cardiovascular disease specialist at Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group in Illinois, told US News Health that experts have concluded both broken heart and happy heart syndrome are caused by "adrenaline and other hormones related to adrenaline."
It is so important to pay attention to what's going on internally as well as physically in our bodies. Our mental health and deep-rooted emotions can have such a vital impact on our physical bodies, so it's always worth taking a step back to check in with yourself and acknowledge when your emotions are taking over, and to find healthy, effective ways to cope.