Can You Actually Die Of A Broken Heart? Answer Might Surprise You

I was aghast the other day. Now there’s a word I bet you haven’t heard in a long time. Significantly aghast is how I would describe it. The same sort of aghast I had, as a child, when I discovered evidence that questioned the existence of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. When I look back in hindsight, I was definitely sold a pup on the Easter Bunny. Seriously though, a bunny that delivers chocolate eggs at Easter? Pull the other one. But as for the two other so called myths, there was no way they could be anything other than the real deal. I mean how else do you explain all those presents at the bottom of my bed on Christmas morning? And being left a pile of silver coins, just because some baby tooth fell out, come on, that has to be magic, right?

So what triggered a revisit to painful memories of what I thought was true at the time, that later turned out to be something else entirely? I was reading a story about the commonly used expression: they died of a broken heart. Call me naïve but I always genuinely thought, that dying of a broken heart, was just a metaphor for being profoundly unhappy. You can’t really die of a broken heart can you? I mean that couldn’t possibly be a recognised medical condition? . Wrong again. Turns out that you can not only die of a broken heart it is also a physiological condition with a medical explanation.

Before we get into the medical explanation part, what really got me thinking about this topic was a series of stories I’d read about couples, married for 60 years or more, who die within minutes or hours or days of one another. I know what you’re thinking. Pure coincidence. But it happens too often to be so easily explained away. Take the case of Ohio couple, Ruth and Harold Knapke who met in the third grade and continued a torrid love affair for the next 66 years. They both died on the same day, Ruth aged 89 and Harold aged 91 just 11 days shy of their wedding anniversary. Their children firmly believe the timing was no coincidence. “When it became clear that Mom was dying — and Dad understood that — he spent a mostly sleepless night,” their daughter Margaret Knapke said. “The next day, Friday, there was a certain calm about him, and he began to fail rapidly. Dad died 11 hours before Mom did — both of them on Sunday — and we believe he did that as final act of love for her. We believe he wanted to accompany her out of this life and into the next one, and he did.”

This is by no means the only story. High school sweethearts, Les and Helen Brown were born on the same day and died one day apart after 75 years of marriage. Pennsylvania couple, James and Marjorie Landis died 88 minutes apart after 65 years of marriage, and Iowa couple Gordon and Norma Yeager died one hour apart, holding hands after 72 years of marriage. Gordon Yeager, 94, and his wife Norma, 90, left for a shopping trip into town but they never arrived at their destination. A car accident sent the couple to the hospital emergency room and intensive care unit with broken bones and other injuries. But, even in the hospital, their concerns were for each other. “She was saying her chest hurt and what’s wrong with Dad? said the couple’s son, Dennis Yeager.  ” Even lying there like that, she was worried about Dad, and his back was hurting but he was asking about Mom.”

When it became clear that their respective medical conditions were not improving, the couple moved into a room with beds side-by-side where they could be close together. They held hands; his right hand in her left hand. Gordon Yeager died at 3:38 p.m. He was no longer breathing, but his family, were surprised by what Gordon’s heart monitor continued to show. Even though he was dead, the monitor said his heart was still beating. A hospital staff member explained to them that Norma’s heartbeat was being picked up because she was holding her husband’s hand. “And we thought, ‘Oh my gosh, Mom’s heart is beating through him,'” Dennis Yeager said. “Dad used to say that a woman is always worth waiting for. He waited an hour and held the door for her.”

As I mentioned earlier, there is a proper medical name and explanation for this condition dealing with affairs of the heart. It’s called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or Broken Heart Syndrome. The condition nearly always follows a traumatic emotional loss, such as death of a spouse, parent or child and it primarily affects women. It causes chest pain and sudden heart failure, believed to be brought on by a surge of fight or flight hormones. The good news is patients with the condition tend to recover faster than most other patients with heart problems. And if they manage to survive the initial onset, it almost never recurs. But there are plenty of examples of Broken Heart Syndrome causing both severe, short-term heart muscle failure and ultimately death for the sufferer.

And if you still don’t think Broken Heart Syndrome is real, there is additional science to shine even more light on the phenomenon. In 1967, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, decided to examine whether stress can actually contribute to illness. They surveyed more than 5,000 medical patients and asked them to say whether they had experience of any of a series of 43 life events, the psychiatrists identified, that might have occurred in the previous two years. The respondents, who took part in the study, listed the death of a spouse as the most stressful life event a person can experience. Of course stress can cause physical ailments especially to the heart, and the physical and emotional consequences of severe grief can sometimes be more than the heart can physically cope with.

Medical research has discovered that in some cases, one person’s heartbeat can affect, or regulate, the heartbeat of another person, quite possibly by acting as a type of life support. In one such study, at the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California, scientists looked at what happens to the hearts of six couples,’ in long term relationships, while they slept. Heart-rate monitors revealed that during the night, as the couple slept beside each other, their heart rhythms fell into synchronisation, rising and falling at the same time. When the printouts of their heart rate monitors were placed on top of each other, they looked virtually identical.

“When people are in a relationship for 20, 30, 40, 50 years, they create a sort of  co-energetic resonance with each other,” one of the scientists involved in the study said. “A simple analogy is two tuning forks, put next to each other. They create a co-resonant pitch.” Another scientist put it a different way: “ It’s about connection. For many people their spouse represents their greatest sense of connection to this world.”

Can someone die of a broken heart? Absolutely.

Don’t Talk About This…We’re Catholic

For the record, I’m not a religious person. It’s not that I don’t believe in God, I just don’t believe in organized religion per se. But it won’t ever stop me, from keeping a weather eye on the latest developments so to speak. Especially, if someone, somewhere manages to upset the apple cart of established thinking.

For example, the apple cart was upset at the Catholic Church, Vatican Synod on the family earlier this week. Six couples were chosen to address 200 bishops from around the world. One of the couples happened to be Australian. Their names were Ron and Mavis Pirola, who are both lifelong Catholics. The Pirola’s are also former members of the Pontifical Council for the Family and Directors of the Australian Catholic Marriage and Family Council.

Clearly, they are well qualified to talk on the issue of marriage and the family but if the synod had known in advance what they were going to say they might have withdrawn the invitation.

Ron and Mavis Pirola devoted almost their entire address to the topic of sex. As the parents of four children,you could say it was a topic they were suitably qualified to talk about. But sharing it with a wider audience, especially a wider audience comprising 200 Catholic bishops was a tad indiscreet. Talking about the joys of sex to this audience is a bit like serving up roast pork at a bar mitzvah.

The Pirolas’ talked about how married couples needed to view sex as an essential foundation for their relationship and how spirituality and sexual attraction had brought the two of them together and sustained their marriage for more than half a century.

But wait there’s more. The attraction that they first felt for each other and the force that continued to bind them both together was basically sexual. The little things they did for each other, the telephone calls, the love notes, they way they planned the day around each other and things they shared were outward expressions of their longing to be intimate with each other.

I can hear you clamoring to yell what is wrong with saying all of that? Surely it is a no brainer and perfectly reasonable in a loving relationship between a man and a woman? Not a problem from my perspective. In fact I agree with all of it. But I was not one of 200 Catholic Bishops, who took a vow of celibacy  who are sitting there listening to this. They did have a problem.

Now at this point you might think the Pirolas’ would be thinking maybe we should sit down and shut up. But if you did you’d be wrong. There was no way they were done talking. The next issue to be tackled in their presentation was homosexuality. The couple told the synod that the inclusion of homosexuals into the church would be a “ model of evangelization” for parishes all over the world.

The Pirolas spoke of how some friends were planning their Christmas family gathering when their gay son said he wanted to bring his partner home as well. This couple fully believed in the teachings of the Catholic church. They knew their grandchildren would see them welcome their son and his gay partner into the family. But their response could be summed up in four words: He is our son.

Of course I wasn’t sitting in the audience listening to this, but in my mind’s eye I can see some Bishops moving very uncomfortably in their seats as the voices of the Pirola’s are ringing in their ears.

And seemingly without drawing breath, Ron and Mavis Pirola had one final parting shot to deliver. They called on church documents to be updated for modern-day Catholics and for future generations. The church needed new ways and relatable language to touch people’s hearts. Compared to what they had already said this was a mere bagatelle.

Then the Pirolas’ sat down, to stunned silence. According to observers, the audience was left completely speechless. But, in a later moment of candor, one of the synod members, a British Cardinal remarked drily, that Catholic Bishops don’t talk about these topics.

I’m sure they don’t. I’m sure they should. I just wished I’d been there to hear Ron and Mavis Pirola.