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Can You Really Die of a Broken Heart?

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(CNN) — Already mourning, fans can’t help but lament the painful coincidence: One day after actress Carrie Fisher’s death at age 60, her mother, actress and singer Debbie Reynolds, died unexpectedly of unknown causes. Reynolds, 84, had complained of breathing problems, an unnamed sourced told the Los Angeles Times.

When married couples or family members die in quick succession, it’s easy to sentimentally attribute the second death to a broken heart.

But can you really die of a broken heart?

Debbie Reynolds, one of Hollywood's biggest stars in the 1950s and 1960s, passes away at age 84. Reynolds died the day after her daughter actress Carrie Fisher passed away.  File-Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher attended Elizabeth Taylor's 75th birthday gala in 2007.  Full credit: Brian Jones/Las Vegas News Bureau

Debbie Reynolds, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1950s and 1960s, passes away at age 84. Reynolds died the day after her daughter actress Carrie Fisher passed away.
File-Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher attended Elizabeth Taylor’s 75th birthday gala in 2007.
Full credit: Brian Jones/Las Vegas News Bureau

“Broken heart syndrome — which is, in fact, a real thing — is when someone finds out some shocking news, typically terrible news, and there’s a massive release of these stress hormones that are released into the bloodstream, and the heart is then bombarded with these stress hormones,” said Dr. Matthew Lorber, a psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

“This could be the news, certainly, of a loved one dying, which is where the ‘broken heart syndrome’ name comes from. This could be the news of getting a divorce. This could be an earthquake or a boss coming in and telling you you’re fired — anything that can cause intense stress,” Lorber said.

The news doesn’t have to be bad; it could even be good news delivered in a sudden, shocking way, explained Lorber.

“Anything that causes a shock or startles can cause broken heart syndrome,” he said.

Though this stress-based theory is probably correct, the precise cause remains unknown, according to Dr. Kevin R. Campbell, a cardiologist in North Carolina.

“It’s really an interesting thing we don’t fully understand,” Campbell said, explaining that the condition was first described and studied in 1990 by Japanese researchers, who referred to it as Takotsubo syndrome.

“If you actually take a picture of the heart in the operating room, it looks dilated and balloon-like,” Campbell said, and that’s how the condition got its original name: The heart is shaped like the Takotsubo pots used to catch octopus in Japan.

Despite a similar appearance to a heart attack, there’s a major difference in that patients with Takotsubo syndrome “don’t have any blockages in the heart,” he said. In fact, “the arteries look completely normal,” though the heart itself is dilated and ballooned and very weak.

Another important difference: Patients recover almost spontaneously over the course of days or weeks, Campbell said, adding that cardiologists commonly treat these patients with the same medicines used for heart attack.

Now, the condition is often referred to as “stress-induced cardiomyopathy,” where cardiomyopathy refers to a weakening of the heart muscle.

The symptoms are intense chest pain, shortness of breath and extreme changes in blood pressure. When the stress hormones barrage the heart, they actually change its rhythm — speeding and slowing the heart in succession — causing pain and leaving a person gasping for breath.

In rare cases of a weak heart unable to take the rapid changes induced by stress, broken heart syndrome “can lead to fluid actually getting into the lungs. It could lead to dangerous changes in blood pressure. It can even lead to heart attack, which can lead to death,” Lorber said.

The syndrome is most commonly experienced by women, by people with a history of neurologic problems, such as seizures, and by people with a history of mental health problems.

“What is known from large studies of Takotsubo is that 90% of cases are in women,” Campbell said, adding that it’s seen mainly in younger women, though it spans all age groups.

Though the syndrome is not completely understood, the stress-induced theory has earned support from doctors focused on mental health.

“In general, we know that there’s a tie between cardiac health — heart health — and mental health,” Lorber said. He added that people who have untreated depression and those with untreated anxiety disorders are “at a higher risk for having heart disease and heart attacks.”

“The most likely reason for this is, depression and anxiety cause a release of stress hormones that get into the bloodstream and impact the heart,” Lorber said. “The more your heart is exposed to this, the more likely you are to have a heart attack.”

It’s more typical for broken heart syndrome to go away quickly, with no long-term consequences. Those who wander into an ER are treated symptomatically, their doctors simply verifying that they did not, indeed, have a heart attack.

With no lasting damage a month or two later, it’s simply a bad memory for most who suffer broken heart syndrome.

Still, a rare few do die of a broken heart. Though it’s not often, Lorber said, “you do hear about someone not wanting to live without their loved ones.”