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You Can Actually Die Of A Broken Heart

It's called stress-induced cardiomyopathy.

09/01/2017 12:16 PM AEDT | Updated 09/01/2017 12:16 PM AEDT
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Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, both died in December.

Most of us know the incredible pain that comes from a broken heart. I still remember the first time my heart was broken and I honestly thought I would never get over it. To be honest, I am cringing at my naivety in that regard, but I still know that chest-crushing, soul-destroying feeling.

Heartbreak doesn't just come from a high-school boyfriend. I can come from the loss of a beloved grandparent or pet, or losing a job that you desperately wanted.

Don't we all know that ache in the middle of your chest? Walking around in a fog like the world will never get better? We all feel like we may die from our broken heart but we all plod along, knowing (or at least hoping) that everything gets better.

And then we watched as the cruel world robbed us of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds just a day later. The world is saying that Reynolds clearly died of a broken heart after her daughter died. Stories such as this one where a married couple died in the same hospital room on the same day are bittersweet. Even The Notebook ended with Allie and Noah tottering off together.

But while we all feel like we're dying when our hearts are 'broken', we by and large make it through the heartbreak and live to fight another day and another heartbreak.

But can you actually die of a broken heart? When your soul is so damaged, does your heart just say "stuff this, I'm outta here"?

Well actually, yes.

You can die of a broken heart. It's about as rare as hen's teeth, but there is a particular disease that affects the "broken hearted". Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy is a really rare disease that we also call stress-induced cardiomyopathy. Cardiomyopathy is a disease when the heart muscle is not well and doesn't pump properly.

Tako-tsubo was first used by the Japanese because the stunned and sick heart looks like Japanese octopus traps. The sudden shock of a major event causes your body to pump out huge amounts of stress hormones, disrupting blood supply to the heart muscle and stopping it from pumping so well. It often goes away by itself, but some people can get really sick from it and permanently damage the heart.

Now, that's not to say that the people in these bittersweet stories all have this rare disease. Keep in mind that these stories are often about very elderly people, so the chances that they actually die very close to one another is higher than we probably think. However, having something or someone to hold on to is well known to help people who are unwell survive for a little bit longer.

In fact, in elderly couples, when one partner dies, the other one is at least 30 percent more likely to die from any cause within the next six months. Some studies have said that number is as high as 90 percent. The hormones that fly about when we are stressed such as cortisol and adrenaline place an extra workload on already frail and fragile bodies and sometimes, the physical body follows the mind.

As interesting as all of this is, it's unlikely that any of us are about to drop dead from heartbreak.

So heartbreak, while a severe disruption to our emotional health, has effects on our bodies. Just like any kind of stress or difficult time, strong emotions create responses that have existed in our bodies for millennia. Fear, loss, anger or any other difficult emotion gets the stress hormones flying so that we can run away from whatever is chasing us. Meant for lions and bears and mammoths in the olden days, we now use that system for anything that upsets us, including scary movies and yes, heartbreak.

As interesting as all of this is, it's unlikely that any of us are about to drop dead from heartbreak. That being said, we should absolutely look after ourselves when we're dealt a blow in life from any cause. Simple things such as staying connected to family and friends, being active and doing things that you enjoy can help ride out that horrible feeling that comes when life deals us a big blow.

Or, if all else fails, perhaps we can dream of marrying Ryan Gosling and having a Notebook-style fantasy.

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