QuestionCan you actually die of a broken heart?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they're talking about. Today, we look at the theories and science behind "Broken Heart Syndrome."
We’ve all heard of the bizarre phenomenon in which couples die one right after another, the second, at times, without any discernible pre-existing conditions. The deaths are sudden and inexplicable, but there must be some reason. There’s even a name for it: Broken Heart Syndrome. But can a person really die of a “broken heart?” Are we talking sheer coincidence? Science? Greater forces of the universe?
In Nautil’s “Turbulence” issue, writer Kristen Weir writes how “people nearing the end seem to be able to choose to live for another day to satisfy a loved one.” And it’s been proven in multiple cases, as even people who have a strong tie with their pet are known to live longer. We consulted doctors, energy healers, psychologists and neuropsychologists for the fullest picture of these passing kindred spirits.
Dr. Michelle McCloskey
M.D., pediatrician at Kingstown Pediatrics Inc. in Providence, R.I
It is possible that the death of a spouse could trigger significant changes in both neurotransmitters and hormones in the body that could have detrimental effects on your health.
For instance, a drop in serotonin and dopamine and a rise in cortisol could lead to ill effects for one's health. I do know that have been medical studies on the negative effects that cortisol can have on your health, such as increased propensity for hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.
Certified in Plant-based nutrition, Cornell; RYT (Yin), IYF Kundalini and Chakra awareness, certified by Guru Sat Raha
Close coupled deaths can probably be traced back to the most basic science: molecules vibrate in relation to other molecules that they encounter.
If you live for a long time with another entity, your molecules will resonate in synchronicity. Having that ripped away may cause a fundamental chaos in the other partner that results in death.
The risk of death during the first six months after losing a spouse has been found to increase by around
Dr. Steven Alter
Ph.D., Clinical Neuropsychologist, New York State Licensed Psychologist since 1990, faculty member at Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University, graduate of University of Pennsylvania, Fielding Graduate University, and the Derner Institute
We know that being in connection is somehow vital to survival, so it seems to me that the close deaths makes sense. I also wonder if there is a type of specific relationship where it would be more likely to happen. You have people who have been coupled through their lives that live together, work together, and are never apart. After one of them passes away, the other may kind of function, but is chronically miserable. I wonder if these sort of people are more likely to experience this phenomena… These people whose complete existence was tied to their spouse.
A huge part of living is being regulated. We all have a sense of internal regulation and we can become co-regulated with another human being. Imagine what happens for people how have been co-regulated with someone for a really long time… that you just become internally deregulated. Probably the way you eat completely changes. The way that you drink water. Everything changes, so you’re probably just walking around in this very de-regulated state. When you’re deregulated and you’re not eating or sleep properly and you’re an older person it can be an issue and have negative consequences.
Separation anxiety is not just feeling nervous about something. It’s a complete internal deregulation. And when that separation anxiety becomes permanent, the consequences can be extreme or fatal.
of American adults are estimated to have separation anxiety disorder.
of children in the U. S. ages 7 to 11 years have separation anxiety disorder.
of teens in the US have separation anxiety disorder.
Dr. Gwen Alter
Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist in private practice
That phenomena is probably most likely to be experienced by people in their late eighties. If you’re eighty something years old and you’ve been married for fifty years and your spouse dies and probably half of your friends have already died that you’ve just experienced so much loss that it feels like you are ready to die also. I doubt it is as common to die of a broken heart when you are younger (say in your seventies) and/or have not experienced so much loss.
There has been an upsurge in psychoanalytic research into attachment theory and the notion that current relationships and psychological well-being are strongly influenced by the quality of one’s initial attachments to one’s mother or primary caretaker. There are four or five different categories: secure attachment, anxious-resistant insecure attachment, anxious-avoidant insecure attachment, and disorganized/disoriented attachment. Perhaps this theory could be helpful in understanding why some elderly couples are more susceptible to this phenomenon.
— The average age of Broken Heart Syndrome is 69 in women. 81% of women who experience the syndrome are post-menopausal.
— Only two-thirds of those with Broken Heart Syndrome are able to identify the event that triggered it.
— Broken Heart Syndrome is most common in women, although 11% of cases occur in men.