Can You Actually Die From a Broken Heart?

The health effects of "broken heart syndrome" are very real

Sad young woman lying her head and hands on the surface of a table circa 1940s

H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock

There is no pain quite as exquisitely intense as that of a broken heart. We’ve all been there, right? A love ending is painful, no matter the form it takes. Whether it is a breakup you were ready for or if you got blindsided, it can tear your life apart. No matter how strong you are, we’re all susceptible to the pain of loss.

We hear many a story of someone dying of a broken heart, but we had to wonder: Is this really possible? Sure, breakups are stressful and horrible, but can they really be fatal?

To answer this question, we did a little digging. It turns out that the health effects of a broken heart are not some scam to sell movie tickets and novels. "Broken-heart syndrome" is legit.

A Real Medical Condition

Broken heart syndrome, AKA Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is when the heart balloons atypically. This can cause serious issues with the ventricles. Scary, we know. Your heart literally breaks.

According to the Mayo Clinic, broken heart syndrome is a very real physical condition. They classify it as a temporary heart condition that is brought on by high-stress situations. It gets its name because, let’s face it, there are fewer things in this world that cause us more stress than a breakup.

According to the Mayo Clinic’s website: “In broken-heart syndrome, there's a temporary disruption of your heart's normal pumping function in one area of the heart. The remainder of the heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions. Broken heart syndrome may be caused by the heart's reaction to a surge of stress hormones.”

Links to Anxiety and Depression

What’s worse, there are long-term effects of heartbreak for some. The stress has been linked to depression and anxiety. It’s not particularly surprising when you think about it. Our interpersonal relationships are the most powerful ones we have.

The idea of losing the one you love is enough to induce a panic attack, let alone the reality. Some relationships you get over, and others you might not. Everyone is different.

The "Widowhood" Effect

Yes, your chance of death may increase if your husband or wife dies. While different than the classic temporary broken heart syndrome, mortality rates have been linked to the death of one’s beloved. The “widowhood effect” is when spouses die within a short period of one another.

This is a real social behavioral effect and has been documented thoroughly. In a 2018 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it’s shown that when one spouse dies, there is a 30-90 percent chance that the other spouse will die within a few months to a year.

“The death of a spouse, for whatever reason, is a significant threat to health and poses a substantial risk of death by whatever cause,” write study authors Nicholas A. Christakis and Felix Elwert.

Does this phenomenon sound familiar? As The Cut points out: Johnny and June Cash. What about Noah and Allie for all you Notebook fans? It may be super depressing, but come on, that is some dark romance.

Side Effects

Another effect of heartbreak? Physical pain. You know the feeling of being truly devastated by a breakup? It’s like you have the flu and your whole body is dying.

That’s because your brain is telling your body it is in pain. Your brain is the powerful epicenter of the body. Studies have shown that the same areas of the brain light up when you’re broken-hearted as when you feel pain.

The brain controls everything, including what you feel. The stress of heartbreak is so great that the signs begin to manifest in your physical being. That is some seriously intense stuff.

Love is a Powerful Thing

It’s no coincidence that broken heart syndrome has the name it does. It’s not just for clickability on the Internet. Love is one of, if not the most, powerful emotions we feel as human beings. Studies have shown that love is as addictive as many major drugs. It is consuming. Maybe that’s why we decide to marry each other in the first place: You cannot even imagine life without that person.

So, give into that loving feeling. It’s OK to feel like the world might fall apart if your partner were to suddenly die or leave you (sorry for being depressing again). These are normal feelings when it comes to intense love. We’re just hoping your romance is more happiness than, you know, death.

Sending good vibes your way!

Gigi Engle is a sex educator and writer living in Chicago. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @GigiEngle.

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