How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?

Something interesting you may have noticed during the press coverage of the death of President George H.W. Bush — he died less than eight months after the death of his beloved wife Barbara.  You may also recall actress Debbie Reynolds dying a day after her daughter Carrie Fisher in 2016.  Is this unusual?

Not really.  The article “George H.W. Bush Died Less Than 8 Months After His Wife of 73 Years. Doctors Explain Why That’s So Common” by Jamie Ducharme sheds some light on this phenomenon.  According to the article —

A 2013 study published in the Journals of Gerontology found that the death of a spouse raises a person’s risk of dying by around 30%, compared to those who are still married. Some estimates are even higher. Some research has shown that in the six months after the death of a spouse, the bereaved face odds of mortality 40% to 70% greater than the general public, according to the American Psychological Association.”

Also, a 2014 study found that people who lost a spouse were more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke in the next month.

Some of the reasons why shouldn’t be surprising.  Married people usually tend to be about the same age and share the same lifestyles.  But there is the additional emotional burden of losing someone so close to you.  There’s even a medical name for it — takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or broken-heart syndrome.

“The brain has a system in it to deal with acute, serious, life-threatening stress,” explains Dr. Martin Samuels, the chair of neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a broken-heart syndrome researcher. “[With broken-heart syndrome], the stress is so great that the chemicals affect the heart such that it fails to contract normally.” The heart assumes an abnormal shape, which leads to decreased blood flow to the coronary arteries and to the rest of the body, he says.

There are some complicating factors.  First, this doesn’t always happen right away.  Memories and dreams that happen weeks, even months, later can trigger the necessary stress.  Second, broken-heart syndrome can be reversed, even though severe cases can cause sudden death.  Third, men seem particularly susceptible; a 2013 study published in Economics & Human Biology found that recently widowed men had 30% higher than normal chance of dying —

“Men often rely on their spouses for important sources of support and care, particularly at older ages,” says Matthew Dupre, an associate professor of population health sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine. “Beyond the immediate stress of losing a spouse, widowed men also lose a close companion that may encourage healthy eating, taking medications as prescribed and other healthful habits over the long run.”

Since death is inevitable, there is not a lot than can be done to prevent broken-heart syndrome, except to be realistic and do the best you can to mentally prepare.

“It’s important for older adults to understand how the loss of a significant loved one may impact their own health and longevity,” Dupre says. “It is also important for health care providers, family and others to be vigilant in providing those the support that is needed to cope with the death of a spouse — particularly among those who are facing their own health issues.”

The complete article can be found at http://time.com/5252953/george-hw-bush-spouse-death/? .

 

 

 

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