Can You Die of a Broken Heart?

I was caught by a news headline “Couple married for 75 years die together.” Jeanette and Alexander Toczko were born in 1919, met when they were eight years old, and married in 1940. The coupled couldn’t bear the thought of being apart and said they hoped to one day die in their bed, holding hands. At age 95, Alexander fell and broke his hip. He never fully recovered and his health deteriorated. A hospice provided care in their home and placed his bed beside his wife. He died in her arms, which is exactly what he wanted. Jeanette said “I love you, wait for me, I’ll be there soon.” Within 24 hours, Jeanette passed away.

We’ve all heard similar stories. There was an elderly couple in my neighborhood who died within 27 minutes of each other, from two different hospitals. It seems mystical, romantic and a tribute to long term love. It is a tribute to long term love, but there is also a medical explanation.

Couples who die close together often have an interdependent relationship. They rely on each other to take their medicine, see the doctors and eat well. One may find purpose and meaning in caring for the other. When a spouse dies, the other may neglect their health. Once their spouse dies, they may not have the will to live. Or, perhaps the trauma of losing their lifelong partner causes bodily harm.

Dr. Ilan Wittstein, at Johns Hopkins University studied the effects of sudden emotional stress on the heart. Dr. Wittstein is a cardiologist. He found that when one spouse dies it increases the risk of the other spouse dying within a year. Broken heart syndrome is more accurately called stress cardiomyopathy. Stress hormones can cause heart muscle damage that can be deadly, weakening the heart, and impairing its normal blood pumping rate. The symptoms of stress cardiomyopathy are similar to a heart attack. There may be shortness of breath and changes to the heart’s electrical activity, but without a blockage in the arteries. Most people recover but you can be sick enough to die of it.

Not many couples can achieve 75 years of marriage or even close to that. Therefore, fewer people will experience this kind of interdependence. More than one third of marriages end in divorce, and people are marrying later in life. Divorce rates are lower than previously, but so are the number of people getting married. Marriage longevity does not necessarily equate to satisfying marital interdependence. Some marriages are more detrimental to one’s health than helpful. Quantity of time is less important than the quality of the relationship.

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