Dying of a broken heart is real.
The emotional distress of losing a loved one can trigger broken heart syndrome, a recognized medical condition that disproportionately affects women and can be fatal.
“A broken heart really is an event where the heart ceases to function normally and is prone to heart rhythm abnormalities,” said Dr. Mark Creager, director of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Heart and Vascular Center in New Hampshire and past president of the American Heart Association. “That term is used to explain a very real phenomenon that does occur in patients who have been exposed to sudden emotional stress or extremely devastating circumstances.”
Known medically as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo syndrome, it can strike anyone, even those in good health with no previous heart problems.
Reynolds, who suffered two strokes in 2015 but recovered, was taken by ambulance to a hospital the day after Fisher died.
“She said, ‘I want to be with Carrie,'” Reynolds’ son, Todd Fisher, told the Associated Press. “And then she was gone.”
No cause of death has been disclosed for either woman.
Broken heart syndrome is when a surge of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, cause arteries to seize, limiting blood flow to the heart. The experience — and diagnosis — is often confused with a heart attack, Creager said.
Both conditions look the same on an electrocardiogram, said cardiologist Dr. Holly Andersen, director of education for the heart institute at New York Presbyterian Hospital and scientific adviser for the Women’s Heart Alliance. But where heart attacks are caused by blocked arteries, there are no such blockages in “broken” hearts.
The condition can be treated and even heal untreated, she said, but it can also cause heart arrhythmias and sudden death.
Japanese researchers were the first to describe broken heart syndrome in 1990. They named it takotsubo, which means “octopus pot,” for the way the malfunctioning heart appears in imaging studies.
Andersen has not treated Reynolds, but she suspects the actress succumbed to “a cardiovascular event,” noting Reynolds’ history of stroke and the prevalence of heart disease among women.
“It wouldn’t be surprising that an 84-year-old woman like Debbie Reynolds had some (arterial) plaque and with this kind of stress became more vulnerable and had more of a garden-variety heart attack and sudden death,” Andersen said. “But you don’t have to have any predisposing disease, and you could still be susceptible to sudden death from (takotsubo) syndrome because of overwhelming emotional stress.”