Valentine’s Day is our national celebration of love. Hopefully, you have a love in your life you wish to celebrate.
Love is certainly grand for so many reasons. We know you can live on love, but can you die of heartbreak?
Living on love is a real thing; it’s called the marriage effect. Married people have much less risk of dying from various things. From cancer to meteor strikes, and shark attacks to heart attacks, married people are safer.
Some of this is due simply to lifestyle. Married people don’t hang around the most dangerous bars in the city. Some of it is due to risk factor reduction. Married people smoke and drink less. And some of it is unexplainable – just living on love.
So, if you can live on love, you would expect you could die of devastating heartbreak. And indeed you can.
Actress Carrie Fisher’s sudden death was quickly followed by the passing of Debbie Reynolds, her mother. She died less than 24 hours later and no one needed to say it because everyone knew it was due to heartbreak. It doesn’t matter what the diagnosis was.
Dying of heartbreak is a primordial soup of causality. We know when you suffer heartbreak you push large amounts of cortisol, the stress hormone, and epinephrine through your system. That stress can sometimes cause death.
For married people, your chance of dying doubles during the first three months after losing a spouse. Long marriages are characteristic of older people (unless you really got married at age 5 as my wife tells me). In this older population there is a lot of heart disease and other medically fragile conditions. Thus, we see some deaths just hours after losing a loved one because they were “sitting ducks”.
But we also see some young, healthy hearts affected by loss. We have all experienced the deep chest pain of grief, or a broken heart. I have two teenage daughters, so I am reminded of such “tragic” experiences.
The sensation is not unlike the feeling of a heart attack. Occasionally that broken heart feeling is actually Takotsubo, or broken heart cardiomyopathy. That’s a mouthful. The left ventricle becomes bulbous and doesn’t pump blood as well.
The Takotsubo is a Japanese vase that was used to capture octopus, which has a similar silhouette to the bulbous heart (for the curious). This condition will usually resolve if the heart failure is treated.
Here’s one more ingredient in that soup. Patients often surprise doctors by picking their own time to die. It’s not unusual for someone with profound disease to die right after Christmas or some event important to them. Sometimes the death of a spouse simply makes life for the other spouse unlivable.
So, the answer is yes, you can live on love and die of a broken heart.
Here is hoping that your love treats you tenderly, now that you know the truth.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.