Can You Die From a Broken Heart?
Can You Die From a Broken Heart?
I recall my teenage years, believing that I would die from a broken heart after being rejected by a love interest. This happened numerous times, from age 16-26, and yet, I somehow survived feeling unloved. If you are young and reading this, you probably will get through it as well, although the stress of a difficult break-up may lead to medical symptoms or depression, and in some cases, you might wish to consult a physician (see below).
For elderly people, the loss of a spouse or loved one may leave them quite vulnerable from a health standpoint. Aging and depression can literally result in the loss of will to live. Relatively small concerns, from the common cold to an infection otherwise treatable with antibiotics, may leave an aged relative or friend fighting for their lives—or sadly, just giving up.
I have been witness to a rapid health decline this year in my 87-year old grandfather. My granny died in May—quite suddenly—though she had become frail and somewhat confused in recent years. My grandfather had been the primary caretaker for the two of them in their apartment. He grocery-shopped, drove, played golf, and took swimming exercise classes. In short, he was a very young 87-year old.
Within two weeks of my granny's passing, grandpa had lost a dramatic amount of weight. He is surrounded with four grown children, twelve grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren. The family engages him in every event possible and he has a large extended network of friends, as well as his own brother and sister who live nearby. Yet, despite a family that is rallying around him, grandpa's depression appears to be eroding his will to live.
We are quite worried that he will die of a broken heart.
What Are the Signs of Elderly Depression?
Depression in the elderly often goes both unrecognized and untreated. The severity of depression symptoms varies from individual to individual. These symptoms are generally characterized by intense feelings of sadness and discouragement.
It can be easy to overlook depression symptoms in older people given the similarity to other aging conditions. The signs of elderly depression include, but are not limited to:
- Increased confusion or forgetfulness
- Change in consumption of alcohol, OTC pain relievers or prescribed medications (not following dosage recommendations)
- Sudden loss of weight and/or disinterest in food
- Inattention to personal hygiene (bathing, shaving, clean clothes)
- Loss of pride in surroundings/unclean or unkept home or apartment
- General withdrawal—stopping church attendance, quitting social activities and not talking as much at family gatherings
- Talking about giving up, or not "being there" for future visits
- Disinterest in hobbies and/or entertainment
- Personality changes: sudden angry outbursts, or an attitude of not caring at all
- Statements to the effect that they do not matter, or otherwise showing a loss of purpose
Effects of the Loss of a Long-Term Love
When elderly people suffer the loss of a long-term love, it can be described as the amputation of a limb. All of a sudden, this huge part of your life to which you are accustomed and upon which you rely is gone.
It is easy to underestimate the impact of such a loss. Throughout life, our experiences lead us to death and grief: pets dying, parents/family/friends going through divorces, chronic illnesses, being fired or laid off from jobs, or even losing your home. Yet, when you have spent well more than half of your life with the same person, the effects of the loss of a long-term love cannot be captured in words.
Ingrained habits, from waking through going to bed, have involved the same person for years. Now they are gone. Small routines from brushing teeth to brewing coffee can be filled with grief when your spouse or partner are gone. Larger events, such as birthdays, anniversaries and the like can be unbearable.
My grandfather met my granny when he was 16 years old. They started dating when he was 18—high school sweethearts. Married in a quick ceremony before he headed off to WWII, my grandpa and granny were celebrated close to 68 anniversaries before she passed away. Through those years, they raised four children. My grandfather's dad was killed in a horrific accident by a drunk driver when my grandpa was only 35 years old. Cousins and other relatives suffered chronic, and ultimately fatal, diseases, and both my granny and grandpa lost their surviving parents at the end of long lives. While they often bickered and teased, these two had a charming life together. All of us grandchildren aspired to live as "happily ever after" as the two of them.
With granny's sudden loss—apparently due to a stroke or other brain event—my grandfather was unexpectedly alone. He had just been arranging daytime care for granny so he could continue to run errands and attend to his exercise classes. Then, he was planning a funeral.
Answering the door several days after granny's passing, my grandfather received a lovely bouquet of flowers from their church. As he told me a week later, he called out to my granny to come and see what had arrived, before he remembered that she was gone.
Experiences like this can be more common in the elderly, and harder to get through.
Depression in the Elderly
Are You or a Loved One Suffering the Effects of a Broken Heart?
What Can You Do to Help a Relative Heal a Broken Heart?
It is very difficult to watch an elderly relative suffer the effects of the loss of a loved one. Each experience is individual and unique, depending on the widow or widower and the connection with you, whether son, daughter, niece, family friend, etc. Other factors include the health of the spouse left behind, the number of other people that can help with caregiving, and underlying conditions - if any - of the surviving partner.
The natural reaction to help a relative heal a broken heart is to spend more time with them, yet, it's important to review other remedies that can help alleviate symptoms of elderly depression:
- Making sure they get regular exercise and engagement in hobbies, like photography, puzzles, and art
- Ensuring that the surviving spouse gets plenty of restful sleep each night
- Helping cut back on alcohol use or overuse of over-the-counter drugs (OTC) that can mask symptoms and increase depressive feelings
- Looking into talk therapy with a licensed psychologist, counselor or religious leader
- Taking prescribed medications on schedule and incorrect dosages
- Helping them maintain appearances with grooming, bathing and keeping clothes clean
Coping With Grief After the Loss of a Spouse
You Can Die From a Broken Heart
No matter your age, researchers have confirmed that you can die from a broken heart, which phenomenon is known as stress cardiomyopathy, Even in people in good health with no signs of heart disease can suffer a "broken heart" or stress-related heart attack:
"Our hypothesis is that massive amounts of these stress hormones can go right to the heart and produce a stunning of the heart muscle that causes this temporary dysfunction resembling a heart attack," Wittstein said. "It doesn't kill the heart muscle like a typical heart attack, but it renders it helpless."
In vulnerable people, stress or the loss of a loved one can cause a reaction in the body that can lead to heart attacks:
A traumatic breakup, the death of a loved one or even the shock of a surprise party can unleash a flood of stress hormones that can stun the heart, causing sudden, life-threatening heart spasms in otherwise healthy people.
The phenomenon can trigger what seems like a classic heart attack and can put victims at risk for potentially severe complications and even death.
Researchers have found an amazing link between mind and body when it comes to reactions to the loss of a loved one. The underlying factor? Stress. Herbert Benson, a mind-body researcher at Harvard Medical School, observed, "Stress must be viewed as a disease-causing entity."
Women appear to be more at risk of dying from a broken heart than men. Hormones may be the primary factor, as well as the caregiving / nurturing role for which women appear to be more hard-wired for than men. Yet, anyone can literally die from a broken heart. The condition is more often seen in elderly people who do not have the fortitude to survive the stress of losing a spouse or partner after decades of being together.
Anyone who is experiencing or has a loved one going through the loss of a loved one should be aware of the risks of dying from a broken heart. Whether physical, mental (depression), or both, the symptoms of overwhelming grief should be watched and tended to as soon as possible.
In serious cases, medical attention should be sought as soon as possible.