Broken hearts could lead to actual heart issues

February 14, 2012 8:17:28 PM PST
With all the talk about hearts on Valentine's Day, here's something new. Did you know that a broken heart can actually break your heart? A decade of medical research is proving that extreme grief can damage the heart. In some cases, a broken heart even lead to death.

The good news is doctors know how to treat "broken heart syndrome" and it's very curable.

Alex and Sandy Hoffman were married for 55 years. Alex died in October. Five days later, Sandy died.

"My personal believe is that after my dad died, he went up to heaven and he said, 'God it's time,'" said their son, Dr. Alan Hoffman.

Phinis and Virginia Gamble were married for 72 years. He died at age 99. Nine hours later, she died.

Phinis and Virginia Gamble were our Christi Myers' great aunt and uncle. When they died the same day, it surprised not only the family but was reported in the newspaper. And what no one could understand is how Virginia knew, because she had Alzheimer's and her children never told her that their father had died just hours earlier.

Did these women die of a broken heart? Medical experts say it's very likely.

"There is such a thing as broken heart syndrome," said Dr. Shahin Tavackoli, a cardiologist with Memorial Hermann Memorial City Hospital.

Dr. Tavackoli has seen it many times. When one his patients, Debra Morrison, collapsed in a grocery store -- on the anniversary of her mother's death -- she was diagnosed with broken heart syndrome.

"It made sense. It made sense on how I was feeling at the time especially," Morrison said.

Morrison lost her father, her mother, and nine months later, her only sibling.

"Very distraught, didn't want to eat, wasn't taking care of myself -- didn't want to, didn't care," Morrison said.

More and more medical studies are proving that a broken heart really can cause a broken heart. It occurs when grief triggers a wave of adrenaline and other stress hormones that weaken or stun the heart muscle.

"Part of the heart will stop functioning," Dr. Tavackoli said.

At first, Morrison's heart hardly pumping but returned back to normal after only three months of beta blockers. Most people do recover, but not everyone.

And here's what grief can do to the heart. Harvard researchers found one in 10 heart attack survivors had someone close to them die within the previous six months.

The researchers found the risk of heart attack was 21 times higher the first day after a death, eight times higher the week after, and four times higher a month after. And it happens most often to women.

Morrison's heart has finally healed, physically. But emotionally, it's a much slower process.

"We were a small family to begin with so when you lose three out of four, you get a little lonely," she said.

The lesson is to be vigilant when someone is grieving. Watch for breathing problems or chest pains because most broken hearts can mend, but sometimes, they need a little help.

One more thing about Dr. Hoffman's parents: His mother died five days after his father, despite the fact she has Alzheimer's and the family had not told her of her beloved husband's death. They believe she just knew.