You may have heard of it before in songs or poems, even in love stories where apparently healthy people pass away after a bout of severe sadness or depression from losing a loved one.
It is most common among elderly couples who have been married together for many decades or after a traumatic break-up of a marriage or relationship whether between couples, or parent and child.
Doctors describe it as a condition where the heart suddenly stops without rhyme without reason. When efforts are taken to resuscitate the patient and clear the heart blockage, they are baffled to find that the heart vessels are actually clear.
Sometimes, the patient recovers by herself after a day or two, while in some cases, other health conditions become severe all of a sudden, leading to death.
It is as if the patient simply decides that life is not worth living because they cannot recover from the emotional pain. Yes, it is true, grief can cause death.
IMITATING A HEART ATTACK
The Broken Heart Syndrome was first studied by Japanese researchers in the early 1990s, who observed patients, typically post-menopausal women who have recently lost a spouse, being admitted into hospital with heart attack symptoms.
X-rays showed that the left ventricle of the heart changes shape, taking on the shape of a balloon or ‘tako-tsubo’, a vase-like pot used to trap octopuses in Japan.
Subsequent studies show that the syndrome has the same symptoms as a heart attack- sudden chest pains, breaking out into sweat, breathing difficulty and loss of consciousness. However, the symptoms are not caused by blocked arteries or heart disease.
In his study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology,
Dr Scott Sharkey, a cardiologist at Minneapolis Heart Institute, refers to it as a “concussion” of the heart, describing it as a heart attack which is triggered by stress.
What happens is that there is a sudden surge of adrenalin and calcium to the heart, which freezes the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber, thus disrupting its ability to contract and pump blood.
In a conventional heart attack, this sudden blockage would have resulted in cell and tissue death, which will have long-term damage to the heart. in the broken-hearted, however, the heart tissues are unaffected, but seems to be stunned by the adrenaline surge and electrically disabled, explains Dr Sharkey.
Although the number of cases have not reached alarming levels, what worries doctors is the difficulty in recognizing the condition correctly and giving the right treatment. The typical treatment for heart attack patients are blood-pressure pills such as beta-blockers and ACE-inhibitors, but Dr Sharkey points out that 20% of patients are already taking these medications.
Some studies suggest that this condition came about because people who are grieving tend not to take care of themselves, thus they have lower immune levels to fight disease. The stress, emotional strain and depression combined may send a strong message to the heart to just give up.
COPING WITH GRIEF
With such a strong mind-body connection in mourning, it is necessary to understand the physical, mental and emotional changes to the body when you lose a loved one. Knowing the changes will also help you better manage the emotions of the surviving partner when they lose someone near and dear.
More importantly, people can be broken hearted not just from the death of a spouse. Dr Sharkey’s research shows that it can also happen when one loses large amounts of money in a casino, getting lost driving in an unsafe neighbourhood at night or feeling overwhelmed by new computer software.
Non-emotional stressors such as severe migraine, knee surgery, low blood sugar or breathing problems can also cause the heart to stop beating suddenly.
In the first few days after a death or loss, most people will feel shock and numbness. Some may experience headaches, fatigue, loss of focus, shortness of breath, tightness in the throat, eating or sleeping too much or too little.
All these affect the immune system, which puts one at a higher risk of health problems.
So is there anything we can do to help someone who is grieving from a loss? The answer is yes. Here are some tips:
1) Let them grieve in their own time. Some people get back to their normal lives faster than others, while others take longer. Still others never seem to recover for a lifetime.
2) Let them grieve in their own way. Some want to talk it over, others want to brood in isolation to heal themselves.
3) Listen, not advice. The last thing a grieving person needs is to be dished conventional lines such as ‘time heals all wounds’, ‘get over it’, ‘just let it go’. Just be there to listen, hold his or her hand, or lend a shoulder to cry on.
4) Remind the grieving person take care of his or her health- to eat, bathe, sleep, exercise and resume the normal routine.
5) Help them find a way to express their grief, whether by writing, singing, planting a tree, drawing, even simple acts like rearranging the furniture, dedicating a corner in memory of the loved one. It’s an important healing process.
6) Help them get organized. Don’t wait for them to ask because they will be too disoriented to think straight. Take the initiative to help with the laundry, cleaning the house, walking the dog, cooking or calling the insurance agencies.