You Really Can Die From a Broken Heart, But Being an Optimist Could Make You Live Longer

You Really Can Die From a Broken Heart, But Being an Optimist Could Make You Live Longer
Our emotions are tied closely to our well-being, studies say.

On December 27, 2016, actress Carrie Fisher, aged 60, died from a heart attack. The very next day, her mother, actress Debbie Reynolds died from a stroke. In the wake of the loss of these two popular Hollywood icons, many have asked whether you can actually die from a broken heart.1,2,3

The short answer to that question is yes. Broken heart syndrome (formally known as stress cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy) is a real medical condition, triggered by acute, major stress or shock — such as the death of a loved one.

Indeed, your heart and mind are closely interlinked, and your mental states can have a distinct influence on your heart health and overall longevity.

Symptoms and Risks of Broken Heart Syndrome

Symptoms of broken heart syndrome are very similar to those of a heart attack, including chest pain and shortness of breath. The difference is there’s no actual damage to the heart to trigger it. Extreme shock or stress may also trigger a hemorrhagic stroke by causing a dramatic rise or change in blood pressure.

According to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), broken heart syndrome is a “temporary condition where your heart muscle becomes suddenly weakened or stunned.” The left ventricle, your heart’s largest chamber, also changes shape, which adds to the temporary dysfunction.

This sudden weakness of the heart is thought to be due to the sudden release of large quantities of adrenaline and other stress hormones.

Adrenaline increases your blood pressure and heart rate, and it’s been suggested it may lead to narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to your heart, or even bind directly to heart cells allowing large amounts of calcium to enter and render the cells temporarily unable to function properly.

While most will successfully recover, in some, the change of shape of the left ventricle can trigger a fatal heart attack. An estimated 90 percent of broken heart syndrome occurs in women.

Having a history of neurological problems, such as seizure disorders, and/or a history of mental health problems is thought to raise your risk.4 While the condition can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention, it’s usually a temporary condition that leaves no permanent damage.

Recent research5 also shows that your heart disease and stroke risk may be predicted by activity in your amygdala, a brain region associated with stress and fear, and this risk remained even after accounting for other risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure and diabetes. According to lead author Dr. Ahmed Tawakol:

“We were surprised at how robustly amygdalar activity predicted hard cardiovascular events, along with providing information on the timing of those events.”

This and other research suggests stress can contribute to cardiovascular disease in a number of ways, but inflammation is a key component.

As reported by CNN, “Stress may activate the amygdala, leading to extra immune cell production by the bone marrow, which in turn may impact the arteries, causing inflammation, which could lead to a cardiovascular disease event …”

The Bereavement Effect

A number of studies have shown that the loss of a loved one raises your own risk of sudden death, also known as the “bereavement effect.” There’s even evidence showing that spousal illness increases the partner’s mortality risk.

A 2006 study6 published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that the risk of death increased after hospitalization of a partner, with some ailments causing a more pronounced effect than others.

For example, while a woman being hospitalized for colon cancer was not associated with an increased risk of death for her husband, being hospitalized for a stroke raised the husbands’ risk of death by 6 percent.

Hospitalization for congestive heart failure raised the husbands’ risk of death by 12 percent, and hip fracture or other serious fracture raised it by 15 percent.

The greatest risk of death following the hospitalization of a spouse was for psychiatric disease, which raised it by 19 percent, and dementia, which raised the spouse’s risk of death by 22 percent.

A 2011 study7 found that, following a partner’s death, the odds of the surviving partner dying remained elevated for six months (the widowhood effect), independent of their age and gender.

A 2012 study8 found that losing a significant person in your life raises your risk of having a heart attack the next day by 21 times, and in the following week by six times. The risk of heart attacks began to decline after about a month had passed, perhaps as levels of stress hormones begin to level out.

A fourth study, published in 2014, found that the death of a spouse may double your risk for a heart attack or stroke in the following month.9

The Links Between Cardiac Health and Mental Health

There are compelling links between cardiac health and mental health. For example, having untreated depression or anxiety disorder increases your odds of having a heart attack or developing heart disease. Stress hormones are again a primary culprit.

Other studies demonstrating a link between your psychological states and heart health include:

A 2011 study, which found that those who reported higher levels of satisfaction in areas like career, sex life and family had a reduced risk for heart disease.10

The following year, Harvard researchers reviewed more than 200 studies on this topic, again concluding that people who are more optimistic and satisfied with life have a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke.11

Pessimism was linked to a 19 percent higher risk of dying over a 30-year period in another study.12

After examining the associations between optimism and heart health in more than 5,100 adults of various ethnic groups for 11 years, researchers concluded that people who display a more optimistic can-do attitude in life experience significantly better cardiovascular health over the long term.

Those who were the most optimistic were up to 76 percent more likely to have a total health score in the ideal range.13,14

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