Can you really die from a broken heart?

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DENVER – Debbie Reynolds’ death just one day after losing her daughter Carrie Fisher has prompted questions about a medical condition often called “broken heart syndrome”.

Every once in a while you hear about couples who are so in love, they can’t live without each other. Some couples have passed away days, hours or even minutes apart.

Is it a coincidence? Or can one person’s death cause the other to suffer a fatal broken heart?

“People are at higher risk of heart attack and stroke in the month after the death of a loved one,” explained Dr. Amrut Ambardekar, a cardiologist at University of Colorado Hospital.

While he can’t say for sure what caused Reynolds’ stroke and ultimate death, he says broken hearts are a very real thing.

“The acute stress of a physical stress, emotional stress can cause sudden heart failure,” he said.

A broken heart can be brought on by a range of triggers including the death of a loved one, receiving bad news, accidents, natural disasters, financial loss or intense fear. Happy news like winning the lottery or a surprise party can also sometimes cause a “broken heart”.

The symptoms are similar to a heart attack. Patients will experience chest pain, trouble breathing, nausea, vomiting and arm pain. But, the physiology of what is happening to your heart is very different.

“The mechanisms are not fully known. It’s different than a garden variety heart attack, which are caused by blockages. What’s different with stressed-induced cardio myopathy or broken heart syndrome, is that the arteries are actually normal,” Dr. Ambardekar said.

A person experiencing a broken heart will have a normal, healthy heart muscle to begin. After a death or other emotional event, the lower left chamber swells up, causing the muscle to weaken.

“There’s some though that the body releases stress hormones which affect the heart and cause the heart to become weak,” Dr. Ambardekar said.

Not all broken hearts are fatal. In fact, most people who come down with broken heart syndrome make a full recovery.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the symptoms associated with cardiac disease, call 911 right away.