The shocking death of actress Debbie Reynolds just one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher died has left fans stunned and wondering whether grief can actually be life-threatening.
In fact, there is some truth to the saying, “She died of a broken heart.” It's well documented in the scientific literature, says David Friedman, MD, director of heart failure services at Northwell Health Long Island Jewish Valley Stream Hospital in New York.
A 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine that included more than 30,000 elderly people found that the risk of heart attack and stroke (which is reportedly what Reynolds may have suffered) more than doubled in the 30 days following a partner’s death, compared to people whose partner was still alive.
Heart attacks and stroke share a number of risk factors, points out Dr. Friedman. "A bleeding stroke or a clot stroke ultimately is the same type of process and problem [as a heart attack]. It's largely a vascular issue," he says.
Fisher had a cardiac arrest on board a plane on December 23 and died four days later, on December 27, at age 60. Reynolds, age 84, died on December 28. Reynolds' health had been declining in the months before her death, according to People. Her last words were reportedly, "I want to be with Carrie."
The first 24 hours after a loss appear to be the most dangerous for the grief-stricken. A 2012 study found that the the risk of having a heart attack was 21 times higher in the 24 hours following the death of a loved one. That research also appeared to bolster one piece of folk wisdom: Time heals. The risk of a heart attack went down as weeks and months passed.
There is even a name for some of the changes that happen in your body after a devastating loss: Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, or Broken Heart Syndrome. It refers specifically to chest pains and temporary heart-muscle failure caused by an uptick in stress hormones after an emotionally taxing event. Fortunately, this syndrome is treatable and usually not fatal.
Broken Heart Syndrome can occur in people who don’t necessarily have risk factors. But heart attacks, stroke, and death after a major loss are more common in those who have pre-existing risk factors like uncontrolled blood pressure, a family history of heart disease, or a build-up of plaque in the blood vessels resulting, probably, from runaway cholesterol levels.
“Sometimes you just have arrhythmia or constriction [in the blood vessels],” says Dr. Friedman. One recent study reported that the risk of atrial fibrillation—a type of arrhythmia (or irregular heart rhythm) that raises the risk of stroke—is higher for up to a year following the death of a partner, especially in people under the age of 60 and especially if the loss was unexpected.
But other factors may be at play as well, starting with the overwhelming emotions after a terrible loss: “It stands to reason to consider the catecholamine surge, or surge of adrenaline and cortisol, in genetically predisposed people with underlying psychiatric issues, poor coping skills, or just a tendency to have a very nervous constitution," says Dr. Friedman.
And health may decline even further during bereavement, as people sleep and eat poorly and even skip their own medications. Adding to the mix, health issues such as these tend to spike during the holidays for reasons that aren't entirely clear.
“There’s the stress of emotional grieving but also the stress of the holidays,” says Dr. Friedman. “Many people are just lonesome. They don’t have families and that weighs on people too.”