In the wake of the death of Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds — who at age 84 died just one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher’s passing — many feel that while sad and tragic, the idea of a mother unable to live without her daughter also reveals something beautiful about the deep bond they shared. So under the circumstances, could Reynolds have died of a broken heart? Doctors and medical professionals say it is possible.
Broken heart syndrome is a condition that’s medically known as the stress-induced cardiomyopathy, and the American Heart Association (AHA) says it can happen in people who’ve never had heart disease. The condition occurs more in women than men and refers to the sudden and intense chest pain and shortness of breath caused by an emotionally stressful event.
Life events like the death of a loved one, divorce, breakup, physical separation, betrayal or even romantic rejection can trigger cardiomyopathy. But so can good news delivered in a sudden, shocking way, such as winning the lottery.
What Happens to the Heart
During cardiomyopathy, an area of your heart enlarges and doesn’t pump well. Simultaneously, the rest of your heart functions normally or with more forceful contractions. It can lead to severe, short-term heart muscle failure.
While this cause and effect stress theory makes perfect sense to some, the damage that the syndrome causes the body still baffles many medical professionals. Stress cardiomyopathy mimics a heart attack, but it doesn’t involve any artery blockage.
“It’s really an interesting thing we don’t fully understand,” North Carolina cardiologist Dr. Kevin R. Campbell told CNN about stress cardiomyopathy. “If you actually take a picture of the heart in the operating room, it looks dilated and balloon-like.” But unlike heart attack patients, they, “don’t have any blockages in the heart. The arteries look completely normal, but the heart itself is dilated and ballooned and very weak.”
The condition, also known as Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy (TCM), got that name because it was first described and studied in 1990 by Japanese researchers. The scientists said in that state, the heart was shaped like the Takotsubo pots used to catch octopus in Japan.
Patients with Takotsubo syndrome or cardiomyopathy usually recover over days or weeks using the same medicines for heart attack patients.
Losing a Loved One Can Be a Trigger
Traditionally, the broken heart syndrome or stress-induced cardiomyopathy has mostly been seen in elderly married couples. After sharing a close-knit, emotional bond for decades, when one spouse dies, it’s very common that the second spouse can die months, weeks or sometimes days after the other.
Happy Birthday to my beautiful daughter! pic.twitter.com/EX4NjUHaID
— Debbie Reynolds (@DebbieReynolds1) October 22, 2015
Los Angeles based grief expert David Kessler, who worked with Fisher on several occasions, told USA Today the idea of dying from a broken heart through the loss of a loved one is “absolutely real. I think it’s extremely underdiagnosed. I think it’s more common than we believe.” And while this typically more seen in cases of spouses than parent and child, Kessler adds, “it’s less seen but not surprising.”
Kessler also told USA Today, because of the close bond he witnessed between Reynolds and Fisher, he thinks Reynolds fell victim to the syndrome. Reports say Reynolds became ill and experienced stroke symptoms while planning Fisher’s funeral arrangements. “[They] were so close,” says Kessler. I would not be surprised if part of this was broken heart syndrome.”