We’ve all heard stories of couples that have been married for more than 40 or 50 years, whose connection is so strong that it seems they can’t live without each other—and sometimes when one of them dies, the other follows a few days or weeks later.
And as romantic as this may sound, there is a scientific explanation behind it.
The loss of a loved one causes stress. The body is in shock and many emotions, including anger and sadness, may cause physical pain—the heart seems to beat faster, the limbs feel softer, and sometimes one simply can’t breathe. Scientists have dubbed this stress-induced cardiomyopathy, or broken-heart syndrome.
Different studies have shown that people are at an increased risk of dying in the weeks following their partner’s dead. Freelance writer Kirsten Weir reports over at Nautilus that in 2011 researchers from Harvard University in the US and the University of Yamanashi in Japan analysed data from 2.2 million people and found that after losing a spouse, the survivor has a 41 percent risk of dying within the first six months after their loved one passed away.
The results didn’t have to do with age: “People under 65 were as likely to die in the months following a spouse’s death as those over 65,” writes Weir.
And the death of a child can also break a heart. A 2013 study conducted in the US found that a mother’s risk of dying increases by as much as 133 percent following the death of a child.
The physical pain experienced after losing a loved one causes a surge in stress hormones such as adrenaline, which prepares the body to react for whatever comes next. Sometimes, however, the heart doesn’t respond well to the increased levels of adrenaline, and it stops pumping normally. If the heart stops pumping blood normally, other health issues may arise. Weir reports:
“We know that acute emotional stress can cause a variety of problems with the heart,” cardiologist Roy Ziegelstein from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the US says. Just as it does with physical strain, the heart demands more oxygen during times of emotional upheaval. When emotions run high, however, the blood vessels don’t dilate. Ziegelstein says emotional stress may cause the vessels to constrict. The result is that coronary blood flow decreases. Your heart craves more oxygen, but it gets less. That can lead to dangerously abnormal heart rhythms and even heart attacks, particularly in people who already have blocked arteries.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that a 2014 study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medical concluded that the risk of heart attack and stroke double during the first month after a spouse’s death.
The death of a loved one also means that one is losing part of one’s mechanism to cope with life—no one will be there 24/7 to hold your hand, cuddle, make you smile, or help you cope with day-to-day tasks. “You have to adjust your stress response. You’re going to be withdrawing resources from your immune-system, and your body is going to take a big hit,” clinical psychologist and neuroscientists James Coan from the University of Virginia in the US explains to Weir over at Nautilus.
So yes, all the stress and the new challenges that arise after a loved one passes away can ‘break’ your heart.