Can people really die of a broken heart?

By Karen Stafford, LSCSW

Grief is a normal reaction to loss, and sometimes it feels as if your heart is breaking.  But can people really die of a broken heart?

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), broken heart syndrome, also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, does actually occur.  It causes sudden, intense chest pain and may be misdiagnosed as a heart attack. “In broken heart syndrome, a part of your heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump well, while the rest of your heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions.”

The Mayo Clinic notes that the cause of broken heart syndrome is believed to be a surge of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, though some suspect a temporary constriction of the large or small arteries of the heart may play a role.  It often occurs after an intense physical or emotional event, such as the death of a loved one, domestic abuse, a frightening medical diagnosis, job loss, divorce, and even some events that would normally be considered positive, such as winning a lot of money or a surprise party.  The Mayo Clinic also points to a few prescription drugs that may contribute to the syndrome.

The syndrome occurs more frequently in women than in men and typically affects adults over the age of 50.  Risk factors include hypertension, diabetes, and possibly also neurological conditions, psychological disorders and cancer.  According to Dr. Nikki Stamp, an Australian heart surgeon, it is rarely fatal, though the risk of dying is highest in the 30 days after a loved one dies (or the stressful event).

So if you feel like your heart is breaking, what should you do?

First, always recognize that any sign of a heart attack should be assessed by a medical professional.  If you’re having any chest pain, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, or shortness of breath after a stressful event, call 911 or emergency medical assistance immediately.  

Second, know that intense grief can impact the body in many ways, and may make a person more susceptible to various other physical ailments that can be treated by medical professionals.  If you haven’t seen your doctor since the stressful event occurred, you might want to schedule an appointment. It’s important to take care of your physical needs and make sure any underlying conditions are treated.

And finally, once medical concerns have been addressed, it is time to think about how to manage the grief or intense stress that preceded the symptoms.  Family and friends can be a tremendous comfort during this time. You might have a faith community that can provide support. If you feel a grief group or individual grief counseling might be helpful, you can call a local hospice or therapist who specializes in grief.  And you can always reach out to mental health providers in the community for support during this challenging time.

Karen Stafford, LSCSW, is the Crisis & Intake Manager at Valeo Behavioral Health Care.  Valeo’s Crisis Center is open 24/7 with crisis clinicians on staff around the clock to meet with anyone experiencing a mental health crisis.  Valeo’s 24/7 crisis line is 785-234-3300.


Valeo Behavioral Health Care   



Crisis Services

400 SW Oakley

Topeka, KS  66606

24 Hour Crisis Line           



National Suicide Prevention Life Line



Shawnee County Suicide Prevention Coalition


Family Service and Guidance Center  (18 and under)

325 SW Frazier            

Topeka, KS  66606

24 Hour Crisis Number



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