Can You Die of a Broken Heart? — and Other Emotional Questions

The effects of grief, anger, fear and depression

Can You Die of a Broken Heart? — and Other Emotional Questions

Contributor: A. Marc Gillinov, MD

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When actress Debbie Reynolds died shortly after the death of her beloved daughter, many people wondered if she died of a broken heart. Is this possible?

Yes, it is, but it is unlikely. We may never know what happened to Ms. Reynolds, but “broken heart syndrome” is a real condition. However, it is uncommon to die from it.

Can other strong emotions cause heart disease? The effects of worry, elation and love on the heart are temporary or minimal, but strong negative emotions, such as depression, anger and fear, are strongly linked to heart disease.

How can grief imitate a heart attack?

“Broken heart syndrome” is also called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, named after the Japanese physician who identified it. It occurs in response to sudden emotional stress — particularly grief — and is more common in women than in men.

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It can imitate a heart attack and produce sudden heart failure. But while a heart attack is often caused by a blood clot in the arteries, broken heart syndrome is probably caused by hormonal factors and an artery that spasms. When the spasm relaxes and blood flow resumes, the heart failure usually resolves.

Can depression increase heart disease risk?

People with depression have an increased likelihood of developing heart disease, and vice versa: If you have heart disease, you are at risk of becoming depressed. The link is strong enough that anyone with depression should be screened for heart disease, and heart patients should be evaluated for depression.

Treating one disease can reduce the risk of the other.

Patients with heart disease may find that participating in cardiac rehabilitation helps their emotional well-being and prevents depression. Likewise, depressed patients who exercise may lower their likelihood of heart attack and feel more optimistic in the process.

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How can anger and fear affect your blood pressure?

Negative emotions cause blood pressure to rise, increase vascular reactivity and the likelihood of blood clots. That’s why such stressors can cause a heart attack in people who are vulnerable.

On the other side of the coin, positive emotions can help people with heart disease live longer. People with strong social networks and close emotional ties to others have less heart disease and tend to fare better if they do develop heart disease.

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