DR. MITCH: Can you die of a broken heart?
Former president George Bush is hospitalized within days of burying his wife. Country music star Johnny Cash dies four months after his wife, June Carter Cash, in 2003. And Debbie Reynolds dies a day after her actress-daughter, Carrie Fisher, did in 2016. All these are famous examples but it has been reported with us regular folks too. So is there something to this?
Stress definitely plays a role. Our stress coping mechanism has different stages all of which put heavy demands on our body. At first, when the initial alarm goes out, the body releases adrenalin and cortisol, the so-called “fight or flight'' chemicals, that can put an incredible strain on the body and do damage (especially if someone already has underlying health issues like diabetes or heart disease). Then there’s a resistance stage, when the body mobilizes all of its reserves to cope: meals are missed; sleep is cut back. Finally, the fatigue or a letdown stage, when the body's defenses may crash from the accumulated strain.
All this can weaken our immune system and put stress on our heart and other systems and tip them over the edge. Also, if you are busying dealing with a loved one's illness or death and all the arrangements and affairs around it, you might not be able to take care of yourself or follow up on things in a timely fashion.
So for example, President Bush, who will be 94 in June, was hospitalized for an infection that had spread into his blood. Stress may have played a role but President Bush has underlying medical conditions including a form of Parkinson's disease and he has been hospitalized before for pneumonia and other infections. So perhaps he did ignore the early signs of infection during the flurry of preparations for Barbara Bush's funeral. It could be something as straight-forward as the reality that things got out of control because he was too busy or too preoccupied to deal with them immediately.
Similarly country music star Johnny Cash was 71 when he died of problems related to diabetes and had a neurological disease for years before that. Debbie Reynolds, was 84, and died because a blood vessel ruptured in her brain, a kind of stroke but she also had high blood pressure and other serious medical problems for several years before that which already put her at risk.
There are a number of excellent medical studies showing that when you lose your partner or they are hospitalized your own risk of dying is increased from 30 – 40%, with the greatest danger in the first 6 months but extending out for as long as 10 years!
So what are we to make of all of this?
In the end, the stress of losing a partner will increase the risk that you will fall ill and perhaps die as well. Family members need to be aware so that they can help support you especially in the critical first 6 months and make certain that underlying health issues are properly attended to, that you eat properly and get enough rest. And we as doctors have an obligation also to keep an eye on you to make certain that early signs of problems aren’t missed.