Can You Really Die of a Broken Heart?

Heart attack risk increases significantly after death of a loved one

Sad ManCountless books, poems, movies and songs have been based on the theme of a broken heart. And who among us can say that they have never suffered from one at some point in their lives?

In your grief, you may have become depressed and turned to unhealthy behaviors like sleeping too much or too little,  or over or under-eating.  But when a broken heart is brought on by the death of a loved one, it may actually be deadly.

According to a study published online in the American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation, the rate of having a heart attack was more than 21 times higher within 24 hours of losing someone significant.[1]

Broken Heart Syndrome

You may have thought “broken heart” was just a turn of phrase, but in certain cases, it is actually a medical condition. “Broken heart syndrome,” also known as stress cardiomyopathy, is a temporary heart condition caused by extreme physical or emotional stress.

The symptoms can mimic a heart attack and include sudden chest pain, shortness of breath, an irregular heartbeat and generalized weakness. These are brought on by the heart’s reaction to surging adrenaline and other stress hormones, and a temporary swelling of part of the heart, which causes it not to pump as well, while the remainder of the heart functions normally or works overtime with more forceful contractions.

Heart Attack Risk Jumps After Loss of a Loved One

The study looked at 1,985 people hospitalized for an acute myocardial infarction (heart attack) between 1989 and 1994. Of those, 270 (13.6 percent) experienced the loss of a significant person in the prior six months, with 19 of those occurring within one day of their heart attack.  Most often the death was a distant relative or friend (153), while 20 lost a sibling, 12 a parent, six a spouse, and two a child.

Researchers found the risk of heart attack was almost six times higher than normal during the first week of bereavement — 1 per 320 for those already at a high 10-year risk of myocardial infarction, and 1 per 1,394 for those with a low 10-year risk.  And while the risk declined with each passing day, they said it remained significantly elevated for at least one month following the loss.

In this study, more than two-thirds of the people hospitalized were men; however, earlier research has shown that women are more prone to broken heart syndrome.

For example, a University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences study found that women are 7.5 times more likely to experience it, and it is three times more common in women above the age of 55 than in younger women. As for women younger than 55, they were found to be 9.5 times more likely to experience broken heart syndrome than men younger than 55.[2]

So if you or someone you know suffers the loss of someone important, be sure to pay attention for signs that could indicate heart trouble. Writing them off could be a fatal mistake.


[1] Mostofsky et al. Risk of Acute Myocardial Infarction after Death of a Significant Person in One’s Life: The Determinants of MI Onset Study. Circulation. 2012 Jan 9. [Epub ahead of print.]

[2] UAMS. Women More Likely to Have ‘Broken Heart Syndrome.’ 2011 Nov 29. http://www.uamshealth.com/News/?sid=1&nid=9291&cid=5.

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