The Science Behind a Broken Heart

Is there science behind the phenomenon of couples dying together? 

Posted in , Dec 30, 2016

Elderly couple holding hands

“Call me home.” That’s what Joe Auer whispered to his 94-year-old wife, Helen, after she died, on the evening of October 15, 2014.

They’d been sweethearts for more than 70 years. According to their youngest son, Jerry, they met at a church dance in Cincinnati, Ohio. They were married in 1941, right before Joe went off to World War II. Afterward they raised 10 children. In later years, Joe still wrote Helen love notes signed “your secret admirer.” They rarely left each other’s side.

Even, apparently, in death. Twenty-eight hours after Helen passed away, Joe died suddenly from an aneurysm. He was 100 years old, but “was as healthy as a horse,” according to Jerry.

Was there another cause of death? Could Helen and Joe, so deeply connected here on earth, have followed each other into eternity?

It’s a romantic notion, popularized by movies like The Notebook, in which the main characters not only die at the same time, but in the same bed, holding hands. Stories about elderly couples who pass away days or hours apart—or, in the case of one British couple, within 10 minutes of each other—seem to go viral all the time. After all, who can resist an eternal love story?

Research suggests that longtime couples dying together—or nearly together—is a very real phenomenon. According to a 2013 study from the Harvard School of Public Health, widows and widowers over the age of 50 are more likely to die than people whose spouses are still alive. It’s called the widowhood effect. While modern medicine has identified potential physical triggers, many unknowns remain.

Take the puzzling condition takotsubo cardiomyopathy, aka “broken-heart syndrome,” first documented in Japan in the 1990s. Doctors observed an unusual phenomenon among patients who came to them with chest pain, shortness of breath, low blood pressure—all the hallmarks of a heart attack. Tests showed that their left ventricle had temporarily ballooned in size, due to an excessive release of stress hormones, even though the patients had no history of heart disease.

“These people were coming into the emergency room with very weak heart muscles, but their arteries were wide open,” says Mimi Guarneri, a cardiologist and the author of The Heart Speaks: A Cardiologist Reveals the Secret Language of Healing. Doctors queried the patients about recent events in their lives. “Cardiologists realized that there was a pattern—all the patients had recently had an emotional shock, like the death of a spouse.” They could actually die of a broken heart.

Why would the body react so suddenly, so profoundly, to a nonphysical trigger? The stress of a spouse dying can wreak havoc. “All of these stress hormones raise your blood pressure, your heart rate, your blood sugar,” Guarneri says. “You don’t sleep as well. You can’t focus, you don’t think as clearly.” Perhaps, she suggests, the body breaks down in response to the soul losing its mate.

Barbara Karnes, the author of The Final Act of Living: Reflections of a Longtime Hospice Nurse, has witnessed couples dying together in her professional and personal life. Her mother and stepfather died five months apart. She believes that the more one’s purpose is tied to another person, the more likely it is that one will die soon after that person. Others just as deeply in love, who lose their partner and continue living happily and healthfully, may do so because their earthly work is still unfinished.

“If they came into life to be together, to learn together, then when one dies, the other may die,” Karnes says. “Life has a purpose, which we may never understand, and when that purpose has been accomplished then death comes.”

According to Dr. Guarneri, the death of a spouse can be especially difficult for couples who have spent many years together. Soul mates who are so bonded that they finish each other’s sentences and even resemble one another. Guarneri points out that this bond is quantifiable: A 2003 study from the HeartMath Institute found that married couples’ heartbeats sync up during sleep.

“Couples at night, their heart rhythm goes into a synchronized pattern, which raises some very interesting issues,” Guarneri says. “What happens when that pattern is broken? Or if it’s not there?”

That heart-to-heart connection has the power to extend life as well. Guarneri recalls one patient with a severely weakened heart muscle. His wife had breast cancer, but it was unlikely he’d survive her. His heart’s ejection fraction, a measurement of its pumping ability, was just 16 percent. The normal range is 55 to 70. And yet his heart continued to beat.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry, I am not leaving my wife. I am not dying before she does,’” Guarneri says. “Every textbook would have said she would outlive him.”

He died one day after his wife did.

Jerry Auer believes something similar happened with his parents, Joe and Helen. In the later years of their marriage, Joe took care of Helen, who struggled with mobility. Perhaps Joe died so soon after Helen not because he couldn’t bear to live without her, but because he’d postponed his own death to support her.

“He was going to live as long as he could to take care of Mom,” Jerry says. “When she passed away, it was like what Christ said on the cross: ‘I am finished.’”

That’s not to rule out one explanation that’s easier to feel than to prove. Jerry says, “I want to believe that Mom called Dad home.” Just as he’d hoped.

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