How You Can Actually Die From A "Broken Heart"

Photo: Jason LaVeris/Getty Images.
Just a day after Carrie Fisher passed away, her mother, legendary actress Debbie Reynolds, also died at the age of 84, reportedly from a stroke. At this point, many have speculated that the emotional toll of losing her daughter contributed to Reynold's tragic death. We certainly don't know all of the details in this specific case, but it's a question that's been asked for centuries now: Can you really die from a broken heart?

Well, yes, it turns out. And the answer really comes down to the way we deal with stress. Normally, your body is actually pretty good at dealing with everyday stressors, such as deadlines, traffic pile-ups, and packed schedules. In response to those situations, the "stress hormone" cortisol regulates many of your bodily processes to keep things in check. And, although it's difficult, the vast majority of us will also be able to get through the more intense stressors, which can include grief over the loss of a loved one.

However, as the American Heart Association explains, there are cases in which "broken heart syndrome" is a very real and potentially serious condition. And, interestingly, the vast majority of those who experience it are women. Plus, that source of stress doesn't even have to be bad for broken heart syndrome to strike. Among the possible causes, Harvard Medical School lists "unexpected loss" and "intense fear" — but also "a surprise party."

So how is this possible? "When you're under a lot of emotional stress, you have this huge release of catecholamines — that's adrenaline, norepinephrine, dopamine, and they can affect the heart and blood vessels," Jon LaPook, MD tells CBS News.

The condition isn't totally understood, but the current thinking is that this surge of hormones (caused by an extremely stressful event) causes one of the heart's muscles to temporarily enlarge, which makes it harder for the heart's left ventricle to pump blood efficiently. That means you might feel symptoms similar to those of a heart attack, including chest pain and shortness of breath.

Most people who experience broken heart syndrome make full recoveries within a few weeks. But there are rare cases in which the condition can be fatal. If treatment is delayed, the patient is above the age of 50, already dealing with other hormone-related issues (especially menopause), or has a mental illness such as depression or anxiety it's more likely for broken heart syndrome to happen and for it to be more serious.

Because so little is known about the condition, there's not much solid advice about preventing it. But we do know that keeping your heart as healthy as possible — and learning to manage your stress and recognise quickly when you need help is smart in pretty much every situation.


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