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“Broken-hearted” isn’t just a lyric used by country and western singers. Studies have shown the risk of a heart attack increases 21-fold within 24 hours after the loss of a loved one.
Beyond that first day, “There is some heightened risk for a good month,” says John Cahill, MD, a cardiologist with Edward Hospital and Advocate Medical Group.
This phenomenon may have played a role in actress Debbie Reynolds’ death one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, died. Reynolds’ son was quoted as saying that his sister’s death “was too much” for their mom.
Stressful news like that can set the stage for a heart attack or stroke by altering blood pressure and pulse rates, thickening blood and triggering a release of stress hormones. The changes to blood chemistry can also lead to dangerous blood clots.
Intense grief sometimes leads to a different heart problem: Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome, a condition that mimics a heart attack with symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath.
“An angiogram is the only way Takotsubo can be differentiated from a true heart attack,” says Dr. Cahill. “The test will show some dysfunction but of a different type than that of a heart attack. Also different: unlike heart attack patients, Takotsubo patients usually don’t have blockage in their arteries.”
There is good news about Takotsubo though.
Dr. Cahill says, “If the problem is correctly identified and treated – typically with medications – the majority of patients make a rapid and full recovery, with no permanent damage.”
The heart can be affected by other shocks besides the loss of a loved one. Broken heart syndrome, also called stress cardiomyopathy, can occur in reaction to other bad news, such as a cancer diagnosis in a family member. Sometimes even a physical stressor, such as an extreme asthma attack, can be a trigger.
How can we reduce our risk of these dangerous reactions to stress and grief?
“People need to recognize their feelings and express them,” says Dr. Cahill. “If you can’t do this with extended family members, consider counseling or consulting with clergy. Support groups through the hospital or the community also can be helpful.”
If you are going through grief and have any symptoms that might be heart-related, take them seriously. According to the Johns Hopkins Medicine website: “Because the syndrome involves severe heart muscle weakness, patients can have congestive heart failure, low blood pressure, shock and potentially life-threatening heart rhythm abnormalities.”
And whether it’s regular meditation or daily walks, adopt stress management and healthy living habits when things are going right. It just may help you stay well when life throws you a curveball.
Learn more about cardiac care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.
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