Can You Die From a Broken Heart?

For some couples, the beyond-life link isn’t just a romantic notion

It’s the stuff of romantic films, soap operas and literature: older couples who follow each other in death, sometimes even sharing the same time, day, month or year. But this beyond-life link may not be merely a romantic notion according to a Harvard Medical School study.

“People are interconnected so their health is interconnected,” study co-author Nicholas Christakis, M.D. and a professor at Harvard Medical School told The Baltimore Sun. ‘So we shouldn’t be surprised that we see this kind of effect.”

Dr. Christakis and his research team cited some of the causes for this phenomenon including severe distress due to the death or illness of a spouse, a couple’s shared environment and habits, and the fact that most people partner with people similar to themselves.

But it may not be as straight forward as all that. Acknowledging the more mysterious and complex aspects of a loving attachment, Christakis said the ‘unmeasurable unstable attributes of couples’ could also help to explain why one spouse’s death may lead to the other’s.

Acute emotional stress
Heartbreak – or psychological stress— is an aspect of what experts call the ‘bereavement effect.’ It is this acute stress which may explain why an elderly person is more likely to die after a spouse is hospitalized or dies, according to several studies in the 1990s.

Similarly, the Harvard study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in February, has found elderly people to be particularly at risk immediately after their spouse is hospitalized or dies.

In fact, the other person had about a 20 per cent greater chance of dying within a year, according to the study. The period of greatest risk was in the immediate weeks following the traumatic event. Within three to six months, the danger began to subside as people adapted to their loss.

And some diseases took a greater toll on spouses than others. Cancer, for instance, was less burdensome on spouses than dementia. Emphysema, an illness where a person’s lungs slowly cease to function, appeared to take a particularly severe toll.

Not surprisingly, the more a disease impairs the physical and mental functioning of a person the more harm it does to the health of the spouse. Serious illness and the death of a spouse can harm a person’s health in several ways: the direct toll of emotional stress, particularly among older people with health problems, and the deprivation of important social and financial supports.

A shared lifestyle
While bereavement plays a significant role, the study indicated there are other reasons couples might die simultaneously. One explanation is that married couples tend to share an environment and, with it, an array of unhealthy lifestyle habits.

‘If my wife dies and I die shortly after, there is a question of whether her death caused my death,’ said Christakis. ‘On the other hand, we could pick up bad habits over the years; maybe we were both overweight. Or maybe we had radon gas in the basement.’

Second-hand smoke is another example. A person who breathes a spouse’s second-hand smoke for years can experience the same harmful health effects.

Who you choose to marry
Yet another explanation has to do with what that sociologists call “assortative mating” where people with similar traits – ethnicity, exercise habits, hobbies, geographic location, and age— are more likely to pair up.

‘We are talking about the probability of well people to become married to other well people,’ Christakis said. ‘And unhealthy people are more likely to marry unhealthy people.’

The result? In some cases, a couple may share similar life expectancies.

The mysteries of love
Factors such as family ties, community support and the nature of a couple’s relationship are key to a person’s health and ability to cope with the stress of illness and death, say experts.

And of course, there is the complicated weave of threads that make up the mosaic of a shared life. Couples who have been together for many years sometimes experience such a deep relationship that a spouse simply decides to “let go” and join the partner who has died or is dying.


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