Stories of husbands and wives who have spent decades together and then die within days of each other, despite no known major illness, are often publicized as romantic. But what is the science behind these occurrences? Is it possible to die of a broken heart? It undeniably happens, but the occurrences are fairly rare.

It Feels Like a Heart Attack

There are many factors at play, most having to do with stress and the chemicals your body produces when dealing with a stressful situation. In broken heart syndrome, also known as Stress Cardiomyopathy, the patient feels as though they are having a heart attack. Shortness of breath, chest pain, and dizziness are all typical symptoms.

Diagnosing Broken Heart Syndrome

When presenting at the hospital with these symptoms, a clinical team will most likely order tests to first rule out a heart attack caused by arterial blockage and may include an ECG, an echocardiogram, chest x-ray, MRI and/or an angiogram. If no sign of blockage is found, the diagnosis and treatment would move to determine if it could be broken heart syndrome in which rapid and severe heart muscle weakness (dilated cardiomyopathy) occurs. This usually includes examining the stress factors in a person’s life and the possibility of such a condition.

Life Events Can Trigger Extreme Stress

Grief after losing a loved one, fear (the term “scared to death!” comes to mind), extreme anger, and sudden surprise can lead to stress cardiomyopathy. The adrenaline released during episodes of these stressors temporarily “stuns” the heart, causing the blood vessels to constrict and blood pressure to drop, but the good news is recovery is much faster than with an actual heart attack.

Treating Broken Heart Syndrome

Once diagnosed, to reduce the workload on a patient’s heart, doctors may prescribe a short course of medications typically used for heart attack sufferers such as beta blockers, diuretics, or ACE inhibitors. They may also keep the patient in the hospital for a short time to observe their recovery.

A True Broken Heart?

In addition to stress cardiomyopathy, there may be other factors at play in what may seem like a sudden passing after someone loses their lifelong partner. Many of these people are now on their own and may not take care of themselves the way they used to when they had another person to care for or to care of them. Depression after losing a spouse can lead to not eating well (or at all), not sleeping well, and/or not taking medications properly. These things can result in serious illness, especially in the elderly. So while broken heart syndrome can certainly contribute to what seems like a heart attack, a metaphorical broken heart can also be a factor in following someone into death after a long and happy life.