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Broken Heart Syndrome: It Is a “Thing”

We have all seen the stories many times.

A couple who were married for decades die within days, hours or even minutes of one another. Siblings who enjoyed a deep bond throughout their lives pass away in shockingly close proximity to one another. A recent story tells of a gentleman who died less than 24 hours after his beloved 15-year old dog was euthanized due to cancer. I myself recall when a colleague’s husband passed away at a very young age after a battle with brain cancer…and the day after his funeral, his father suddenly passed away as well. 

Our collective reactions to these heartstring-tugging stories are largely similar. We either cluck sympathetically or pragmatically wonder at the marvel and mystery of “coincidence”.

However, a closer examination of many of these types of stories has yielded an emerging truth. Suffering from a “broken heart” after a loss is not necessarily a mere figure of speech meant to reference only emotional trauma. There exists an actual, serious physical affliction called Broken Heart Syndrome; an affliction that can unfortunately result in devastating consequences


We are all aware of the effects that stress can have on our general health. When my late husband was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease seventeen years ago, I quickly went from being a vital, extremely active, healthy 38-year-old woman, to suffering a dramatic increase in the frequency and severity of once-periodic migraine headaches. My immune system also no longer had the ability to fight now-frequent cold and flu viruses. I was constantly sick. Most telling about the toll that overwhelming stress was taking was experiencing my first bout with shingles at the age of 39; a virus that once “awakened”, can recur throughout one’s life.

Given the obvious and very real impact that stress can have on a person’s body, shouldn’t it logically follow that severe emotional stress might physically impact the heart as well?

It should…but apparently, logic has taken time to catch up.


Whether examined from medical or layperson standpoints, Broken Heart Syndrome makes a great deal of sense. Just as the rest of the body can be compromised by extraordinary stress, so too can the heart. The heart is just as capable of going into “shock” as the rest of the body – except when a heart goes into shock, it is referred to as “cardiac arrest”.  The unfortunate part is that too many people (especially women) either assume that potential cardiac symptoms are due to something else (indigestion, food poisoning, flu, fatigue, a bad day, etc.) and self-medicate accordingly or they simply ignore the symptoms altogether. In fact, it is only in recent years that the medical community acknowledged and now educates that cardiac symptoms in women can manifest much differently than in men – and that those symptoms can again vary widely from woman to woman.