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What Is Broken Heart Syndrome?

I spent 22 years in the nursing profession, and I enjoy writing about medical issues. I'm also interested in history, genealogy, and travel.

Flowers at a cemetery. The death of a spouse can gravely affect the health of the surviving spouse.

Flowers at a cemetery. The death of a spouse can gravely affect the health of the surviving spouse.

Death of Partner - Effect on Survivor

According to Dr. Nancy Goldberg, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, the death of a loved one is a dangerous time for the surviving spouse.

This is particularly true for an older person who might already have some health problems. Also, when a couple is elderly and have been married for many years the grief might be more pronounced.

The sudden shock of death particularly might cause the surviving spouse to have a serious medical problems, such as a heart attack that is actually referred to as “broken heart syndrome”. Early death may occur for the survivor, which is referred to as the “widowhood effect”. This has been true for men and women around the world according to a study the NIH completed.

The amount of years a couple has been married has a direct effect on a death occurring among the elderly population, affecting about 30% in the first three months and around 15% in the next several months. However, some studies show a lower percentage of cardiac events for women than men.

Cardiac Events Following Loss of a Spouse

According to a recent study by Harvard, an individual losing their spouse has a 66% increased chance of dying within three months, and men have a greater risk than women.

It has been recognized for a long time that bereavement is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. We all experience emotions like anger or anxiety, but extended grief that lasts for months is very difficult.

Dr. Peter Stone is a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School and a senior physician in the Cardiovascular Division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

He stated, “Emotional stress will clearly wreak havoc with the sympathetic nervous system, and that can lead to problems as the authors described.”

This system is responsible for the body’s fight-or-flight response, which means adrenaline is at an all time high over a longer period of time.

Exceptions to Above Studies

The only exception to these statistics is for spouses losing a mate to Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease. It is possibly the fact that the surviving spouse has been a caretaker for their spouse during these difficult diseases, plus the spouse may have experienced anticipatory grief, thus preparing for the loss of their partner.

Men and women often seem to experience the same mortality statistics in studies despite the cause of their spouses death.

My father passed away twelve years ago after a long illness, and my mother survived but was hospitalized numerous times starting shortly after his death. My father suffered greatly during the last year of his life, so in some ways we felt at least he was not suffering any longer. The loss of a spouse affects emotional and mental health, in addition to physical health. Fatigue and appetite changes are common.

Dr. Mary Ann McLaughlin on "Broken Heart Syndrome"

Stages of Grief

Elisabeth Kubler Ross is the best known individual who studied the five stages of grief. There is no time limit for any stage, and sometimes a person may move forward and then back a stage for a period of time. It could depend on the cause of the death of the spouse.

These stages include:

  1. Denial - a stage of disbelief that helps process the loss
  2. Anger - an important stage, which may include doctors, friends or even anger at God
  3. Bargaining - it might make us wonder what we could have done differently
  4. Depression - an empty feeling may occur, withdrawal from life, or other feelings occur
  5. Acceptance - accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone; the new normal

Acceptance does not mean everything is okay. The feeling of loss may still occur, but it is learning to live in the world of what is now normal. This is a time where there are more good days than bad ones. Some feel they are betraying their loved one, but over time these feelings will subside.

While age is clearly a factor for an increased risk of death, it is important to know what we can do to help these surviving partners live through this difficult time. The mourning process is important, but there are some things that can ease the difficulty.

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Senior Couple


Tips for the Grieving Spouse

Important considerations for those beginning several months of grief:

  • Family support is important
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Walk or get some type of exercise every day
  • Taking their medicine
  • See a physician as necessary for any new unhealthy symptoms
  • Joining a grief support group
  • Read one of the books specifically written for the survivor
  • Get out for some activity, such as lunch with a friend

Family Member or Friends Can Be Supportive

If you have a friend that has lost their spouse there are some things you can do to help them also.

Reach out to that friend often and repeatedly. They may not always have much to say, but not hearing from loved ones is one things expressed in grief groups. This hurting person needs to know you are a friend all the time, and there is no right or wrong thing to say, just be available.

It would be appropriate to ask them how they are doing today, because that acknowledges the fact that you know they are experiencing profound grief. Then, just do a lot of listening in case they want to talk about the pain or maybe some experiences they had, even though you may have heard it before.

Practical Tips for Dealing with the Bereaved

As grief is so exhausting and often the person does not even feel up to even cooking. Taking them a meal, taking them out to eat or even offering to do some grocery shopping may be very welcomed.

Some people need help even paying their bills, or you might help them with some type of clean-up job around their home.

It is okay to use the name of the person they lost when you are talking. Sometimes memories and stories are appreciated when these bereaved people are going through the stages of grief.

Also, holidays, birthdays or anniversaries maybe a time when support is greatly appreciated. It is important to understand if your religious faith is different then your relative or friend, so be respectful always.

In Summary

Relationships will change as different family members or friends take on new roles. New friends may be made, particularly if the individual attends a grief support group.

When people go through a similar difficult experience the group members understand the feelings. They will often make helpful suggestions.

It is difficult to lose a loved one, but with enough support time will pass and the days will improve.


This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2018 Pamela Oglesby


Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on June 14, 2018:

Dianna, That is probably the most important thing you could have done for your dad. It isn't always easy as you are also experiencing grief. Thank you for your comments.

Dianna Mendez on June 13, 2018:

I remember when my mom passed away how much dad lamented her death for weeks. The family stepped up with visits and outings to help him through the grieving process.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on May 31, 2018:

Peggy, I agree it is not a fun subject, but it seems as we age we encounter loss with family and friends.

I heard on the news today that President George. H. W. Bush was back in the hospital. I am sure the loss of Barbara Bush was devastating to him.

I wish you and your husband many more good years.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 31, 2018:

In reading this my first thoughts went to President George H.W. Bush who recently lost his dear Barbara. He has not been in the best of health and has been hospitalized several times since her death.

We have two good friends who recently lost their spouses. It is a hard time for them both and we are doing what we can to be there for them. I remember how hard it was for my mother when my dad died.

This year will mark our 48th wedding anniversary. I hate to think of the day if something happens to my husband prior to me dying. Not a fun subject to ponder.

Maria Jordan from Jeffersonville PA on May 31, 2018:

So good to see a post from you, dear Pamela - this is a meaningful and relatable subject for many of us.

Will be sharing with a friend who has recently lost her husband after a long illness.

Take good care. Love and hugs, Maria

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on May 31, 2018:

I think that is important. My husband is in more health, and I have depended on him for a long time. I think our relationship with families and friends is so important now, and supporting each other essential. I appreciate your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on May 31, 2018:

Pop, I very much agree with your comments. There is no exact timeframe for some acceptance of this loss. It is painful to watch those we care about suffer. Your last statement is exactly what I was trying to get across. Support from those who care is so important.

Thanks for your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on May 31, 2018:

Thank you so much for your comments.

The older I have become, the more people I know as friends and especially in church who struggle with this loss.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on May 30, 2018:

Sad to think about these things, especially as we age and know it could well happen to us.

I guess this why we should all have other things and people in our lives to not feel so all alone.

breakfastpop on May 30, 2018:

This is a very important and informative article. My dearest friends have experienced the loss of their husbands, and the process has been heart wrenching to watch. Support means everything, and I think people have to understand that there rarely is a time period for recovery. Everyone experiences this loss differently. What they need to know is that their friends and family are there for them.

RTalloni on May 30, 2018:

This post is appropriately done. The points are really important, yet not so overdone that any who are already overwhelmed cannot absorb it. Your work here will be useful to many who face the loss of a loved one and to those who reach out to try to help them through the event and going forward.

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