Can you really die from a broken heart?
It’s certainly a question that comes to mind in light of the news that Lisa Marie Presley suddenly died on Jan. 12 from an apparent cardiac arrest at age 54.
Presley, daughter of the late Elvis Presley, died just four days after her father’s birthday and two days after she attended the Golden Globes, where actor Austin Butler won an award for his performance playing her father in the biographical drama “Elvis.”
In 2020, Presley also lost her son to suicide. Her final Instagram post, published Aug. 30, 2022, included an essay for People she wrote about grief.
“I’ve been living in the horrific reality of [grief’s] unrelenting grips since my son’s death two years ago,” she wrote. “I already battle with and beat myself up tirelessly and chronically, blaming myself every single day.”
Presley is not the only celebrity who has died shortly after grieving the loss of a loved one. Actress Debbie Reynolds died in 2016 from a stroke, just one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher suffered a heart attack. And Johnny Cash died just four months after his wife died from a heart complication in 2003. They had been married for 35 years.
This isn’t just a phenomenon among celebrities, however. There’s evidence that older adults who part with a loved one they’ve grown close to, especially a spouse, can indeed die from a “broken heart.”
“We’ve all heard stories about inseparable older couples where one passes away shortly after the other,” the National Council on Aging wrote in a statement. “The idea of dying from a ‘broken heart’ may seem like a romantic sentiment, something straight out of a Hollywood love story. But there’s an official name for this very real phenomenon. It’s called the ‘widowhood effect.’”
Research from the Harvard School of Public Health discovered there’s a 66% increased chance that a widow or widower will die in the first three months of their spouse’s death. And research from the American Medical Association agrees, finding a 63% greater risk of death for caregiving spouses.
The NCOA suggests this is because adults who spend all their time caring for a spouse may neglect their own well-being.
“This sense of apathy may extend into the grieving process once the spouse passes on,” the organization wrote. “For example, the surviving partner may fail to take prescribed medications or keep important doctor’s appointments.”
According to the NCOA, here are some potential reasons why one grief-stricken spouse may die soon after their partner:
- The physical and mental tolls of being a caregiver
- The physiological impact of grief
- A lack of social support
- Changes in living environment
Research from Harvard Medical School states that one can also experience broken-heart syndrome – or takotsubo cardiomyopathy – during a grief period. This occurs when someone in stress starts to experience symptoms of a heart attack without evidence of any artery obstructions.
“Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is a weakening of the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber, usually as the result of severe emotional or physical stress, such as a sudden illness, the loss of a loved one, a serious accident, or a natural disaster such as an earthquake,” Harvard Health Publishing writes in a statement.
If you’re dealing with the death of a spouse or loved one, the NCOA recommends several coping mechanisms:
- Talk to a qualified counselor
- Focus on self-care
- Stay busy
- Get a pet
- Turn to others