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Feb. 13 2010 - 1:32 pm | 467 views | 2 recommendations | 4 comments

More Die of Heartbreak, More Often than You Might Think

Broken Heart

Image by CarbonNYC via Flickr

More die of heartbreak than anything else. Yet, there are no mass movements against heartbreak or demonstrations in the streets.

–Saul Bellow

The great novelist was so convinced of his claim that he even titled one of his last novels after it, “More Die of Heartbreak”. And as it turns out, Bellow’s statement isn’t only poetically elegant, but also scientifically accurate–at least to an extent. 

The first study to investigate the question of whether people can actually die of heartbreak was published in the British Medical Journal in 1969. Participants consisted of  4,500 widowers, 55 years or older, tracked over the span of nine years. Researchers found that the risk of dying in the first six months after losing a spouse was 40% higher than average. (Source: Scienceline.org)

More recent studies, including a few especially compelling ones conducted at Johns Hopkins University and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, have confirmed the findings: a person’s risk of death from heart attack significantly increases following a loved one’s death. In one study, researchers tracked 1.5 million people aged between 35 and 84, and found that, in the six months after losing a spouse, the risk of dying from a heart attack increased by 20 to 35%.

The linkage between heartbreak and death appears to hinge on a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline, GH and cortisol. During one of the Johns Hopkins studies on what was dubbed ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’ (aka acute stress cardiomyopathy), patients with no history of heart disease showed signs of imminent heart failure but without the traditional symptoms of heart attack. The one commonality between them was that they’d all received bad or unexpected news just prior to being admitted to the hospital. Blood tests showed that their levels of stress hormones were several times higher than normal, and doctors determined that the hormonal deluge was handicapping their hearts’ ability to pump. 

But there’s also a behavioral side to this. Recent studies have  found that after the loss of a loved one, the risk of dying from an accident, violence or drug and alcohol-related event drastically increases as well. In these cases, emotion triggers risky behavior leading to one’s demise.  Heartbreak in this sense is an indirect cause of death, and it’s much higher for men than women.   

Even if heartbreak doesn’t kill you (and in all likelihood it won’t), it can predispose you to a buffet of other issues. Too-high stress hormone levels are directly linked to gastro-intestinal problems, lowered immune response, anxiety disorders and depression.  People who have experienced the loss of a loved one or are coming off a break-up are more likely to get a cold, flu and pneumonia. And as everyone who has ever experienced a failed relationship knows, getting back to feeling like “you” takes some time. 

Ending on a positive note—in the spirit of Valentine’s Day—the realty is that even after the loss of a loved one, whether by death or break-up, the odds of recovery are in your favor. Fortunately, we’re resilient beasts, which is a good thing because we’re also gluttons for emotional punishment. Such is love.


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  1. collapse expand

    This is one time I hope no-one reads my comment(pride, embarrassment) but I can’t help but put in my 2 cents- I know you can die from this, I thought I would just last year, and being middle aged I never expected to be in love like that again but when it proved to be my imagination instead of 2 people, well I lost the will to live, and still do not have the energy I did before this. One has to be careful with internet email instant chats and all that, it is easy to get pulled into something that is just a sham, in my case I knew her but was just being played as they say. I made the mistake of creating a fantasy world to live in and got deeply hurt- it can happen to anyone if it happened to me, I am no softy. I guess the important thing is your last lines, and we have to be willing to move on, life is for the living as they say! Thanks for the insight.

  2. collapse expand

    Truly interesting. While Bonanno charts the resilient side of the normal distribution, your post stakes out a claim for the other, so bad in fact that some actually die. What I think both ends share is a feeling of wanting to die, of seeing no hope of going on, even though only for some will the loss prove fatal rather than an opportunity for resilience.

    Here’s hoping this is NOT a normal distribution, but one heavily skewed towards resilience!!

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    I’m a freelance writer, blogger and research wonk who writes about science, technology and the cultural ripples of both. Along my winding career route I've been a public outreach specialist, editor, research analyst, proposal writer and part-time journo. When I’m not writing for True/Slant, I’m blogging about neuroscience and a medley of ‘ologies’ at Neuronarrative.com, and writing freelance for Scientific American Mind.

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