The time following a breakup or the death of a loved one is unquestionably painful, but can you die of a broken heart? It's been a question on many people's minds lately following the death of Debbie Reynolds. The beloved film actress passed away from a stroke on Wednesday at 84 years old, just one day after the death of her daughter, the equally iconic Carrie Fisher, at age 60. According to CNN, Reynolds' son Todd Fisher said she was devastated by Fisher's death, and many fans have wondered whether the timing of Reynolds' death is less than coincidental.
This brings up the original question: Is it actually possible to die of a broken heart? The research behind the subject is limited, but in 1990, Japanese researchers came up with a name for "broken heart syndrome." According to Harvard Women's Health Watch, takotsubo cardiomyopathy is a temporary condition in which the left ventricle of the heart weakens. It can be induced by severe physical stress like sudden illness, but it's most commonly known for occurring after emotional stress like the death of a loved one. According to the American Heart Association, the symptoms of broken heart syndrome mimic those of a heart attack, although no arteries are actually blocked.
Bereavement is a well-known risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. In a 2014 study, researchers described a "marked increase" in cardiovascular events in the month following the death of a partner. In 2012, a study found that 6,230 incidences of takotsubo cardiomyopathy were reported in the United States. Interestingly enough, the same study found that women — particularly postmenopausal women — are far more likely to receive the diagnosis.
Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is named after an octopus trap, tako-tsubo, whose shape resembles that of a "broken" heart. According to Harvard Women's Health Watch, here's what that looks like: The middle and tip of the heart's left ventricle balloons outward, but the top functions normally. This winds up looking like the aforementioned octopus trap, which has a round bottom and a narrow neck.
It sounds scary, but there's good news. According to the Johns Hopkins Heart and Vascular Institute, although complications can occur, most patients recover within days or a few weeks without lasting damage. In a study published this January, however, researchers found that the effect of broken heart syndrome on the nervous system may last longer.
Although Reynolds' death may not have been caused by broken heart syndrome, there's evidence that the condition itself does exist. However, the answer to the original question — whether a broken heart can kill you — is less clear-cut. Technically, takotsubo cardiomyopathy can be deadly, but much like grief itself, most patients will recover with time.