NWI health experts say you can die of broken heart - January 6, 2017

Courtesy of The Times of Northwest Indiana • January 6, 2017

By Giles Bruce

When actress Debbie Reynolds died Dec. 28, one day after the death of her daughter, “Star Wars” star Carrie Fisher, many people speculated that Reynolds died from grief.

But is this an actual medical phenomenon?

Northwest Indiana health experts say it is.

“Grief is manifested in the brain. The brain of course controls all your body functions, everything from your heart rate to your breathing rate to your endocrine functions,” says Dr. David Ashbach, a nephrologist for Methodist Hospitals. “If the brain alters these functions in somebody like Debbie Reynolds, who’s well into her 80s, the alteration can be fatal.”

Grief over the loss of a loved one can negatively impact your health, particularly if you’re old and frail, local medical experts say. That’s why you often hear of longtime married couples following each other in death, one right after the other.

There’s a reason for that, too: The death of a spouse is said to be the most stressful life event possible.

Dr. Julia Kocal, a psychologist with LaPorte Physician Network Primary Care in Knox, pointed to a 1967 study by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe that ranked the stressful life events that most contribute to illness. No. 1 was death of a spouse, followed by divorce, marital separation, being institutionalized, and death of a close family member.

“When a person is under such acute or shocking stress it affects them physically,” she says. “You can have increased blood pressure, heart rate, sweating, and constricting of perpheral blood vessels, which can affect the cardiovascular system, which can cause stroke and heart attack.”

The American Heart Association says broken heart syndrome, also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is caused by stress hormones from a traumatic loss. The condition is also often accompanied by chest pain and shortness of breath, and is only fatal in rare cases. Women are more prone to broken heart syndrome than men. Unlike a heart attack, though, there is no evidence of blocked heart arteries.

Jean Lubeckis, a therapist with Franciscan Health in Michigan City, says she personally knows of three combined husband/wife funerals, including one where the spouses died within 10 hours of each another. She had an uncle who passed away within a year of his wife of 67 years, and a family friend who died within months of her adult children. Lubeckis says she even felt physical heartache, along with chest tightness and shortness of breath, after losing her 17-year-old stepson.

“In many cases, I think people lose the will to live,” she says. “They no longer see a purpose in their lives, or they don’t know how to go forward with their lives without the spouse, child or loved one who died. I think any fight or drive leaves them and they no longer care to live.”

She says this happened to a patient of hers who died without any medical explanation but had expressed a want to die.

So what can people do to avoid getting sick or dying from the loss of a loved one?

Ashbach says wakes and funerals are designed to help process grief. And technology provides a new outlet, as social media can be used to celebrate the life of a late family member.

Kocal also says to keep an eye out on grieving loved ones, particularly those who are elderly or have other medical conditions.

“Check for heart rate, respiration. Monitor them for a short time at least when the initial shock of something like this occurs,” she says. “And recommend follow-up grief counseling.”