Most of us have experienced some sort of heartbreak before. Whether it’s a breakup or the passing of a beloved grandparent or pet, these events can leave us feeling heart-wrenched, and even physically sick with grief.
Many people have wondered before – is it possible to die of a broken heart? And although the idea seems far-fetched and like it’s straight out of a romantic movie or book, experts say it could happen.
So yes, in fact, you can die of a broken heart, but it’s also extremely unlikely.
It’s called broken heart syndrome and it can happen when an extremely emotional or traumatic event triggers a surge of stress hormones. These hormones can put you in short-term heart failure, which can be life-threatening.
Strong negative emotions like depression, anger and fear have also been linked to heart disease.
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.
“Broken heart syndrome is probably caused by hormonal factors and an artery that spasms,” explains cardiologist Marc Gillinov, MD. “It can imitate a heart attack, but heart attacks are caused by a blood clot in the arteries.”
For reasons that are not well understood, a person will experience a huge surge of adrenaline that can stimulate a heart attack. The heart muscle stops contracting, and it will appear to be a heart attack, even when an electrocardiogram is performed.
Most of the time, when the spasms relaxes and blood flow resumes, the heart failure will usually resolve. If the heart failure doesn’t improve, it could cause death in extremely rare circumstances.
People with depression have an increased likelihood of developing heart disease, and vice versa: If you have heart disease, you’re 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.
Yet another reason why mental health is so important!
“Negative emotions cause blood pressure to rise, increase vascular reactivity and the likelihood of blood clots,” explains Dr. Gillinov. “That’s why stressful emotions can trigger a heart attack in people who are vulnerable.”
On the flip side, 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.