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Can a person die from a broken heart?

Albert and Lorene Longstreet of Memphis, TN, were inseparable. Married 54 years, the Longstreets did everything together. When one got sick, so did the other. They talked about remaining together until death did them apart.

Then, just last year, Albert, 78, succumbed after a lengthy illness. It was the day after Christmas. Lorene, 83, was brokenhearted that her husband died first, making his transition without her. It was the first time they were apart.

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During the funeral, Lorene walked to her husband's casket, bent over and whispered to him, "Albert, it won't be long." She then took her seat and died.

"She wanted to be there with him. She asked God, 'Lord, don't leave me here. I want to be with my husband,'" Jimmie Rhee Longstreet, the couple's daughter, recalls.

Did she die of a broken heart?

At some point in our lives, we'll all experience bad news, possibly suffer a traumatic breakup or maybe encounter a sudden surprise with no warning. But can emotional shock or devastating news be fatal? Can a person die from a broken heart?

"It really looks like they can [die of a broken heart]," says cardiologist Dr. Ilan Wittstein, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and its Heart Institute. "In the study that we did, it's important to remember that the study came out of observing a few eases of this to see what was causing it."

After suffering from "broken heart" syndrome, recovery can be quick, but in some instances it could prove fatal.

Dr. Wittstein was the lead author of the study on "broken heart" syndrome, a condition where sudden extreme emotional stress can result in severe, but reversible heart muscle weakness that mimics a classic heart attack.

Patients are often misdiagnosed with a massive heart attack when they have suffered from a days-long surge in adrenaline and other stress hormones that temporarily "stun" the heart. It can trigger what seems like a classic heart attack, the researchers found, and can put victims at risk for potentially severe complications and even death.

"What we found is that after certain traumatic emotional events," says Dr. Wittstein, "people were coming with all the signs of a heart attack, chest pains, fluid in the lungs and shortness of breath. We found the heart muscles were weak, but rapidly got better. The amount of permanent damage was essentially zero."

Treating this condition may be short-term because the heart usually recovers by itself, but in some instances that might prove otherwise.

"Even though there is rapid recovery, in the first couple of days, a person can be very sick," says Dr. Wittstein. "Massive amounts of adrenaline can actually stun the heart. It's not permanent damage, but it can cause the heart muscle to temporarily be weakened."

The findings appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. In the study, 19 people who did not have a history of heart problems-or suffering from chronic stress-were exposed to unexpected stress after having received bad news or having a sudden surprise with no warning. They appeared to have what looked like a traditional heart attack. Most were in their 60s and 70s; one was 27. Stress hormones in their blood were two to three times higher than in the heart attack victims and seven to 34 times normal levels.

Dr. Paul Underwood, interventional cardiologist with North Phoenix Heart Center in Phoenix, says that certain major losses can have a profound effect on the heart. Sometimes it could be fatal.

"Adrenaline makes the heart irritated," says Dr. Underwood, who is also active with the American Heart Association cultural health initiative. "It is a strong toxic for the heart. It makes the heart squeeze harder and makes it more irritable. If there is a blockage or the heart is weak, that stress and adrenaline can trigger that group of abnormal heartbeats that may not sustain life."

Dr. Underwood says that the body has a way of preparing for major stress. "It's that same feeling with getting ready to get hit by a car. You feel a squeezing sensation in the back. You feel the heart pounding and you get sick to the stomach. That's adrenaline. The adrenal glands receive major stress and that raises the blood pressure and makes the heart pound faster. Your body needs to react to physically combat this."

Lorene Longstreet was a woman with no health problems other than high blood pressure, according to her family.

The Longstreets daughter, Jimmie Rhee, said her mother, "died in my arms sitting at the church. She died of a heart attack. Doctors said she died peaceful. No pain. No heart trouble."

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Gloria Morrow of Pomona, CA, says that one must make the distinction between physical death and emotional death before a response can be given as to whether a person can die from a broken heart.

"From a psychological perspective, there is little evidence to support the notion that one can physically die from a broken heart when bad things happen unexpectedly," says Morrow, author of Too Broken To Be Fixed? A Spiritual Guide To Inner Healing. "However, there have been reports of a surviving senior adult dying suddenly after the death of a longtime spouse or partner, even if the first death occurred suddenly. When a spouse or partner dies suddenly or otherwise, it may be difficult for the remaining spouse or partner to recover, especially if they have devoted a lifetime to each other."

Albert Longstreet's funeral was stopped after his wife died at the church. Eight days later the couple had a joint funeral at Greater Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Memphis.

Cousin Constance Parker, who handled the funeral arrangements for both, said, "It was [Lorene's] prayers answered. If ever there was a true love, it was them. She wanted to go. She kept saying, 'I can't live without you.' It was strictly a love bond."

COPYRIGHT Johnson Publishing Co.
Thu Nov 30, 2006
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