According to Todd Fisher — son of the actress Debbie Reynolds, who died yesterday at age 84 after suffering a stroke — his mother died of a broken heart.
The death of Reynolds’s daughter and Todd’s sister, Carrie Fisher, of a heart attack Tuesday “was too much,” he told reporters. "She was under a lot of emotion and stress from the loss [of Carrie] and it's pretty much what triggered this event," he told E News.
We’re not going to speculate about whether Reynolds’s death was a direct result of her 60-year-old daughter’s death. We haven’t spoken with her doctor. Reportedly, Reynolds’s health had not been good in the past few years. She’d had two strokes in the last year, Carrie Fisher told Fresh Air in an interview last month.
Yet we still can’t help wondering: Is it possible for someone to die from the shock of a broken heart?
Individual stories can’t help us here. But data sets on large groups of people can.
Studies find an increase in mortality after the loss of a loved one
There’s actually a good amount of research on this question. Studies — based on huge mortality databases in Europe — have found mortality increases after the loss of loved ones.
The death of a spouse, of a sibling, of a child, and, indeed, of an adult child have all been linked to higher mortality.
One study found losing a child ages 10 to 17 years increased the risk of death in the following year by 31 percent. For parents losing older children (in their late 30s and 40s), mortality risks are actually reduced in the first few years, “though over the long term, they lie notably above bereaved parents’ death risk,” the study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, reports.
Why would bereavement and mortality be linked at all?
According to the evidence, there’s no one reason. In all these studies, it’s hard to tell if the same factors that caused the death of the loved one also played a role in the death of the bereaved. Both could have been subjected to the same environmental stressors, or suffer from the same genetic predispositions.
But researchers point to a few more concrete reasons.
First, there’s the acute stress of losing someone. In losing a spouse, sibling, or child, you lose a support system. A child’s death, especially, involves an intense psychological shock, a sense that the natural order of life has been disturbed. Parents aren’t supposed to die after their children.
There is, quite literally, a condition called “broken heart syndrome,” or takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It’s when, in reaction to a sudden surge in stress, the heart’s left ventricle weakens. “The precise cause isn't known, but experts think that surging stress hormones ... essentially ‘stun’ the heart,” Harvard Women’s Health Watch explains. That then triggers “changes in heart muscle cells or coronary blood vessels (or both) that prevent the left ventricle from contracting effectively.”
Then there are psychological reasons.
“In the long term, various [physiological] changes related to stress could increase susceptibility to infectious diseases, affect the risk and prognosis of cancer, and lead to diseases of the cardiovascular systems,” a 2003 study on mortality after the death of a young child explains. Stress could also change behavior — increasing smoking and alcohol consumption, exercise patterns, and diet.
The bright side: Our relationships with people deeply matter for our health. They can also protect us.
If there’s an upshot to these studies, it’s this: The relationships we have with loved ones matter deeply.
The strength of our bonds with others is associated with a great many good things. The fortitude of social connections is a predictor of resistance to Alzheimer's and overall mental health. Studies find people with strong social bonds tend to live longer than others. In contrast, some experts say loneliness is as bad for the heart as smoking.
Humans are social creatures; our entire psychology is built on coexisting with one another. Social relationships guide our decisions to join groups, go to war, gain status, empathize, punish, marry, and mate. Having evolved this way means we suffer without the companionship of others — and thrive when we’re around them.