Can you really die of a broken heart?
In her new book, heart and lung surgeon Dr Nikki Stamp examines how heartbreak can literally break us.
Here’s a personal tale for you. My own biggest relationship heartbreak very nearly broke me. As you would expect, I spent a lot of time crying, talking, crying again and then talking some more to my friends. It was a horrible time – not only had I lost my partner and best friend, but I also felt I had lost all those happy memories we had shared. They were tainted by this new pain.
I remember talking to a friend about this and how I felt so sad to have lost those beautiful stories. Somehow, we got talking about how, when someone you love dies, those memories may not be quite so tainted.
They continue to be beautiful and happy, as they always were.
Like a lot of people in that situation, my heart was broken but my body was not far behind. I didn’t sleep; I couldn’t sleep. I had Mad Men on repeat on my laptop so that if I did happen to nod off, when I woke up, I wouldn’t be alone – Don Draper and his misfit colleagues would be there to greet me. My appetite was non-existent and I became thin and gaunt. My clothes hung off me and my hair was lank. My body was undernourished and running on adrenaline. My heart hurt so badly that it was destroying the rest of me in the process.
Impact of love on your heart
While separation, divorce or losing your high-school boyfriend are, of course, not the same as watching your soulmate die, they still give a massive beating to your mind and body. Medical science has devised ways to take pictures of the brain by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Even better, we can use a specific form of functional MRI to light up areas of the brain that are particularly active, so we can see in the images which areas are working overtime and which are chilling out. When it comes to breaking up, the brain is not happy about it.
One great, if slightly mean, study showed photos of their ex-partners to people who had recently suffered a breakup. What did they find? The parts of the brain that detect pain lit up like crazy. So, you are genuinely in pain when your happy-ever-after turns sour.
People are pretty quick to point out that divorce is common these days, and one of the more stressful life events that can happen. This is hardly surprising when you consider it isn’t just losing a relationship and a partner, but perhaps children, property, pets and even favourite belongings. Plus, divorce is a potentially expensive venture. Relationship breakups can create stress on top of stress and, as we know when it comes to bereavement, stress is not great for you.
Women are more prone to having their hearts literally broken
Quite a few people have looked at how divorce impacts specifically on the heart. Women going through divorce seem to be prone to having their hearts literally broken. If we look at men and women after divorce, women’s health takes more of a hit; men remarry more often and sooner, which may help their emotional and physical health. Women are generally more emotionally and financially hurt in a marriage breakdown, which adds a whole bunch of pain to an already rubbish situation. When it comes to men’s health after divorce, it seems that, once again, not having someone around to nag them to eat well and drink less is a bad thing for their health. Keep that in mind if you’re a woman who has been accused of nagging: it’s for the good of their health.
For women who are divorced, the risk of a heart attack is between 1.29 to 1.39 times higher than for women who are continuously married. For men, the figures are similar, with the risk of heart attack for divorcees 1.38 times greater than for their married counterparts. What is different, though, is that when men remarry that risk drops back down to a similar level to that of their continuously married mates. To put this into perspective, the risks posed by divorce to a woman’s heart health is on a similar level to that of high blood pressure or smoking.
Two studies have specifically looked at what happens to blood pressure when someone is getting divorced or thinking about their divorce. These studies showed a big jump in the blood pressure of these heartbroken individuals. Once again, this was more pronounced for women than men. High blood pressure puts incredible stress on the heart and blood vessels. While much is made of the traditional risks for heart problems, such as smoking and diet, divorce is emerging as the way to really break your heart.
A US study of more than 16,000 patients found a scary trend: for both men and women divorce increases the risk of having a heart attack; however, for women that risk is even higher, especially for women who are currently divorced. Now here’s when things get a little unfair for the ladies. If you remarry, your risk of a heartattack doesn’t lower. For the blokes, however, the risk goes down a little. And, unsurprisingly, the more divorces you have the worse it is for your heart.
Benefits of marriage on the heart
Being happily, continuously married is a pretty good way to avoid heartbreak on all fronts. Women who are married seem to have their hearts well looked after because they smoke less and exercise more. When we take into account all the factors that can make you more or less healthy – such as where you live and how much money you make – women who are married may have a similar rate of heart attacks to those who are unmarried, but they do a lot better in the long run. By doing better, I mean they are more likely to survive a heart attack and afterwards they live a better quality of life. The real advantage though is for married men, who really take the prize if they’re married, because in virtually every study they do much better than single men after a heart attack.
Heart attacks are not the only problem that can be precipitated by the death of a loved one or a relationship breakup. Atrial fibrillation is a heart rhythm that is abnormal. Rather than contracting regularly and evenly, the atria fibrillate, meaning that they shake and contract in an uncoordinated fashion. Atrial fibrillation is one of the most common heart problems and can lead to further issues, including heart failure or clots forming in the uncoordinated areas of the atrium, which can then move to the brain, blocking off blood supply and causing a stroke.
If you lose a partner, your risk of developing atrial fibrillation is around 1.5 times that of the general population. This is more pronounced in younger people and that risk remains elevated for around one year after your partner dies. Much like heart attacks or other health problems such as infection or trauma, the body responds to stress through activation of its nerves and hormone systems (including adrenaline and the sympathetic nervous system). That in itself can cause the heart to flick into atrial fibrillation.
The ways in which the heart can be more than just emotionally battered by a breakup are similar to the symptoms that can appear when a spouse dies. Hormones such as cortisol, which cause problems with sleep and blood pressure, are released when you are told that ‘it’s not you; it’s me’. And it seems those processes that cause physical problems in our bodies don’t just hang around until we’re over the heartbreak: they seem to cause health issues that are, to some degree, sustained. Depressing, right? Becoming a cat lady might be looking pretty attractive about now.
So can you die of a broken heart?
In short, yes you can. From the direct toxic effects of adrenaline in an acutely stressful situation, to the physical symptoms of having your heart broken, the mind and heart are truly connected.
However, the less straightforward answer is that while having a broken heart will not always kill you, it certainly is not good for your physical wellbeing. While your body is trying to be helpful by setting off a cascade of hormones and nervous system responses to be ready to fight for your survival, these effects can actually hurt your heart when they hang around for too long. The tough thing about life is that we truly cannot avoid the rough times.
So is there a way to protect yourself?
Well, I suppose you could avoid love altogether, but where is the fun in that? We know that being married or in a relationship is protective, and not just for health. After all, when love is around, isn’t life wonderful? It seems that most of the population is more than happy to risk it for the glorious rewards. While rough times can be guaranteed, building a resilient body and mind is like taking out an insurance policy for your wellbeing.
This is an extract from Dr Nikki Stamp's book Can You Die of a Broken Heart?, $29.99, out now.
Here is what women can learn from men when it comes to break-ups. Plus, how Kaley Cuoco used exercise to help her get through her divorce.
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