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Broken Heart Syndrome: Illness After Loss

Much ink has been spilled about George H.W. Bush becoming seriously ill after the death of his wife of 73 years, Barbara. Similarly, the father of fashion designer Kate Spade died a day before her funeral recently. Former British Prime Minister James Callaghan died of pneumonia at 92 in 1995, just 10 days after Audrey, his wife of 67 years, according to The Telegraph. Musician Johnny Cash died in 2003 four months after the death of his 73-year-old wife, June.

We could list many others, because anecdotes abound about couples married for over 50 years who end up dying within hours, days or weeks of each other — even if one spouse was relatively healthy when the first one died; the same is true for parents.

Is it possible that grief is implicated in illness and a higher risk of death?

Actually, yes. Grief suppresses the immune system, making it more likely for grieving people to get sick — ranging from a mild illness like a cold to something potentially life-threatening, such as a serious infection.

It can also result in takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a condition we colloquially call “broken heart syndrome,” in which extreme stress causes part of the heart to temporarily enlarge and fail to pump well.

In 2002, a team of researchers coined the term “psychoneuroimmunology” to describe how psychological trauma can have a serious effect on one’s immunity.

Broken Heart Syndrome or The ‘Widowhood Effect’

For decades, scientific studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between bereavement and a distinct reduction in the immune system.

In 1995, researchers demonstrated what has since become known as the “widowhood effect,” in which widowed spouses are more likely to die after losing their partner. A 2012 study of widowed people born between 1910 and 1930 found that widowed men have a 30 percent increase in mortality over their expected rates after a wife dies.

Janet Lord, who led a British study on the topic, told The Telegraph, “There are a lot of anecdotes about couples who were married for 40 years when one of them passes away and then the other dies a few days later. It seems there is a biological basis for this. Rather than dying of a broken heart, however, they are dying of a broken immune system. They usually get infections.”

Combine this information with the fact that grief is a painful and difficult process, and some widowed spouses, especially those who were married for decades and are already sick themselves, lose the strong will to live that kept them going when their partner was alive.

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