HEALTHY LIVING

You Can Actually Die From Grief

We don't know if that's what happened to Debbie Reynolds, but we do know that grief can have a profound effect on heart health.

12/29/2016 05:06 pm ET
Mike Blake / Reuters
Actress Debbie Reynolds poses with her daughter actress Carrie Fisher backstage after accepting her Lifetime Achievement award at the 21st annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles, California January 25, 2015.

Just hours after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, died of a heart attack on Dec. 27, actress Debbie Reynolds reportedly suffered a fatal stroke at the age of 84.

“She’s now with Carrie, and we’re all heartbroken,” Reynolds’ son, Todd Fisher, said from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, according to the Associated Press. The stress of his sister’s death “was too much” for his mother, Fisher said.

While it’s impossible to say whether or not acute distress contributed to Reynolds’ death, it’s medically possible for stressful life events to trigger fatal health outcomes.

“Grief is a highly personal experience,” Dr. Jose Biller, professor and chairman of the stroke center at Loyola University Chicago and a spokesman for the American Stroke and Heart Associations, told The Huffington Post. 

Grief over the death of a significant person has been associated with an immediate increased risk of cardiovascular ailments, Biller explained. Indeed, there’s significant research on what’s known as the “widowhood effect,” where the death of a spouse increases the living partner’s chances of dying.

Take, for instance, a 2014 matched cohort study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, which compared older adults between the ages of 60 and 89 from a U.K. primary database who experienced the death of their partner to those who didn’t, between 2005 and 2012. 

The researchers found that within a month of their partner’s death, bereaved male and female participants were at an increased risk for a stroke or heart attack compared to their peers who hadn’t experienced the loss of a partner. (That heightened risk of heart attack and stroke dropped back down after 30 days.)

“Broken” and “happy” heart syndromes

There’s also a phenomenon known as “broken heart” syndrome, or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which mimics the symptoms of a heart attack and is characterized by chest pain, and shortness of breath following severe emotional or physical stress. This phenomenon happens despite no evidence of coronary artery obstruction, according to Harvard Women’s Health Watch.

“Broken heart” syndrome is rarely fatal, according to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, and most people who experience the syndrome recover quickly, without any long-term damage from the resulting low blood pressure, chest pain or shortness of breath. 

And although negative life events are much more likely to trigger takotsubo cardiomyopathy than positive ones, it turns out that positive stress (such as a surprise birthday party, for instance) can trigger similar heart problems, according to a study published in March in the European Heart Journal. 

Both “broken” and “happy” heart syndromes occur almost exclusively in women, and although researchers don’t know for certain why that is, they theorize that there could be a link between post-menopausal women’s lowered estrogen levels and takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

While deaths from broken heart syndrome are exceptionally rare, cardiac damage from grief can cause long-term damage, especially if you’re already at risk for cardiovascular events. According to research reported in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association in 2012, heart attack survivors’ risk for an attack spiked by 21 percent in the 24 hours after the death of a significant loved one and remained six times higher than normal for the following week. 

For Biller, one of the biggest takeaway from Reynolds’ death is that both the brain and heart are altered by grief. “There is no question about this exquisite and multidimensional brain-heart connection,” he said, noting that more research needs to be conducted on that connection.

“After all, we are not just flesh,” he said. “Emotions. Mental illness. The spiritual life. We are very complex organisms.“

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