The Hollywood star Debbie Reynolds died Dec. 28 in Los Angeles, one day after her daughter, the actress Carrie Fisher, passed away following a massive heart attack. Reynolds’ son, Todd Fisher, told the press that the 84-year-old was discussing funeral arrangements for her daughter before she fell ill. According to TMZ, he also reported that hours before his mother had to be rushed to the hospital, she said: “I miss her so much, I want to be with Carrie.”
Though Reynolds died of a stroke, it’s a very human reaction to cast this as a death from a broken heart.
There is in fact a medical term for death from a broken heart: stress cardiomyopathy. It refers to a specific heart event, thought to be brought on by a surge of flight-or fight-hormones that overwhelming the heart.
The American Heart Association says the incident, which feels like a heart attack, occurs when “a part of your heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump well, while the rest of your heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions.” Some doctors call it takotsubo cardiomyopathy, named for the Japanese octopus trap with a pot-like shape resembling that of a heart in this condition.
As a reaction to sudden stress—which may be related to a unpredicted death, a natural disaster, or another kind of surprise, including a prank—broken heart syndrome is fairly common and is usually temporary; a person can recover within a few days. But death from a broken heart following the loss of a spouse, or a child, is a very real, documented phenomenon. Indeed, many of us know of elderly couples like Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, who died within days, weeks, or a few months of each other.
A major study of the “widowhood effect,” published in the the journal of American Journal of Public Health in 2008, found no spike in spousal deaths following the loss of a husband or wife to a disease like cancer or Alzheimer’s, which usually progress slowly, allowing family to prepare for change. The unexpected death of a spouse, however, was named “a significant threat to health” that posed “a substantial risk of death by whatever cause.”
It wasn’t only takotsubo that was found to be the fatal blow, however. The researchers also saw an obvious higher incidence of death from other causes, including accidents, and infections, and a higher risk of death from chronic diseases—as if the prospect of living alone becomes unbearable to the spouse in shock and mourning.
And a separate study in 2014 found increases in incidents of both heart attacks and stroke in the wake of a death of a loved one.