I had never heard of what is officially labeled "Broken heart syndrome" until a friend of mine collapsed five weeks after her long-term sweetheart died. She was rushed to the emergency room and admitted into the hospital, but within 36 hours, she, too, was dead. When 92-year-old former first lady Barbara Bush died earlier this year, her husband — of 73 years! — was admitted to the hospital the day after her funeral. He recovered and was able to return home, but many observers worry that he might become develop Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which often claims the lives of "broken-hearted" survivors.
The condition — which is the result of abnormal movements of the walls of the left ventricle in the heart — was first named by Japanese physicians back in 1990. Unlike a standard heart attack, Broken heart syndrome involves a bulging ventricle that resembles a "tako-tsubo," which is a type of round-bottomed narrow-necked pot used by fisherman in Japan to trap octopuses.
According to Dr. Marc Wilkinson, a MercyCare physician in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the syndrome really can reflect sorrow and distress. "It really is a broken heart. The stress of a spouse dying is one of the top stressors that anyone can face." And although it's not particularly common, it is "more common than people realize." But Broken heart syndrome isn't limited to the loss of a long-term spouse. In fact, several situations that trigger intense physical or emotional reactions can cause a surge of stress hormones that can damage the heart. These include the following:
—An asthma attack.
—A sudden surprise.
—A car (or other) accident.
—A fierce argument.
—Receiving terrible life-changing news.
—A serious illness, medical procedure or surgery.
—A sudden drop in blood pressure.
—The unexpected illness, injury or loss of a close relative, friend or pet.
When Japanese doctors began studying Broken heart syndrome, they discovered that more than 90 percent of their reported cases were among women ages 58 to 75. And there are indications that about 5 percent of women who are being evaluated for a heart attack actually have Takotsumo cardiomyopathy. Here are the features that distinguish Broken heart syndrome:
—Chest pain and shortness of breath.
—No coronary artery obstruction.
—Movement abnormalities in the left ventricle.
—Ballooning of the left ventricle.
We all know that couples usually share an emotional connection with each other, but researchers at the University of California, Davis, have discovered that people in a relationship unconsciously synchronize both their breathing and their heart rate. This might explain how a survivors' hearts can be stunned after the death of their loved ones. It has also been suggested that older women are more vulnerable to Broken heart syndrome because of their reduced levels of estrogen.
This past year, I have learned the hard way that becoming a widow ushers a variety of unwelcome emotional and physical challenges into one's life. One useful resource to help navigate such a stressful experience is Kristin Meekhof's book "A Widow's Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First Five Years."
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.