Nearly a year ago, Hollywood was shocked when actress Brittany Murphy, just 32, died from pneumonia, which she contracted after taking over-the-counter drugs. Within five months, her doting husband, British screenwriter Simon Monjack, aged 40, was also dead. He’d died from a cardiac arrest – his heart had literally broken.
I bring this up because I just came across some fascinating data that confirms what I’ve always suspected: there is such a thing as a broken heart.
Scientists have discovered this phenomenon is nothing new. Researchers at St. Andrews University in Scotland, studying the lifespan of thousands of married couples, found that more than a third of men and a quarter of women die within three years of their partners’ deaths.
“The key message is that it doesn’t matter what causes of death you look at, there is still a widowhood effect,” remarked Professor Paul Boyle, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council and lead author of the study.
In his study, Boyle examined records of more than 58,000 men and about the same number of women who’d been married in 1991, and then tracked them for the following 15 years. Of this group, more than 5,000 men and 9,600 women were widowed.
As is generally assumed, the men had a slightly tougher time of it, and within three years 40 per cent had died. Nevertheless, of those women whose partners died, 26 per cent had died within the next three years.
Most interesting of all was that the cause of death didn’t seem to matter. The widowed partners died from illness, such as cancer or heart attack; self-inflicted causes, such as alcohol abuse, smoking or suicide; accidents, such as a car crash; or even murder. It was as though once a partner dies, the remaining spouse feels left behind and decides to give up, one way or another.
I saw this firsthand with my in-laws. My father in law was not a pleasant man; my mother-in-law spent many Sunday lunches muttering in the kitchen to me and my sister-in-law about one or another of his mean-spirited ways.
Nevertheless, over their 40 plus years of marriage, they’d developed not only a certain fondness for the other but also a great dependency. When George gave up on life at 90 – he’d just had enough – Edie didn’t know what to do next. We encouraged her to see her friends, take a trip.
But taking care of him had been her entire life.
“I just don’t know what to do with m’self,” she said repeatedly, looking down at her hands. Within six months we held our second funeral – this time for Edie.
A broken heart can be almost instantaneously lethal. In 2009, the parents of Martin and Gary Kemp, two members of the old UK band Spandau Ballet, had an almost instantaneous case of widowhood effect, and died within two days of each other.
Scientists have tried to rationalize the widowhood effect as due to the similar lifestyles between couples, who consequently get exposed to the same risk factors.
But Japanese cardiologists have a better explanation, after discovering a phenomenon called ‘stress cardiomyopathy’, when an emotional upset, such as the loss of a loved one, causes dysfunction in the ventricular chamber and heart failure in people without previous heart disease.
The heart muscle temporarily weakens, causing it to literally break. This situation, now referred to as ‘broken heart syndrome’, is caused by deep emotional stress, whether a sudden break up, a rejection or death of a spouse.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins found that women with this syndrome, which often brought on heart failure, had none of the usual predisposing factors of heart disease. What they’d suffered was purely psychological — the sudden divorce or the death of a loved one.
Nevertheless, the bereavement or sadness had released such toxic levels of stress hormones, particularly adrenalin, that these had ‘stunned’ the heart, literally causing it to break.
In the St. Andrews study, Boyle concluded that people give up on life within six months of losing a partner, but that the broken-heart syndrome can occur up to six months after bereavement.
In other cases, such as that of Johnny Cash, death occurs from complications of an existing illness – diabetes in his case —just four months after the death of his wife June.
The loneliness disease
Heart expert Dr Dean Ornish has discovered an extraordinary statistic: all the usual risk factors for heart disease — smoking, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and high-fat diet — only account for half of all heart disease.
Every so-called lifestyle risk factor laid at the door of cardiovascular illness by the medical community has less to do with someone having a heart attack than simple loneliness. No one environmental or dietary risk factor appears more important than isolation — from other people, from our own feelings and from a higher source.
In that sense, heart disease can be viewed chiefly a disease of emotional alienation.
Healthy adults with good support networks are shown to have lower blood cholesterol levels and higher levels of immune function than those without emotional support.
This is not confined to human society. A similar situation exists in animal societies. Researchers conducting heart studies on rabbits are flabbergasted to find that among the animals given high cholesterol-producing diets, those who are played with and petted by researchers developed less cardiovascular disease than those who are in cages out of reach and left alone.
By the same token, when animals are placed in competitive environments with constant power struggles — in short, the typical dog-eat-dog environment of your average human work place – the stress of the confusing social hierarchy has more to do with causing heart disease than diet or other risk factors.
This research demonstrates something very fundamental about the human experience – indeed, the experience of all living beings. The need to move beyond the boundaries of our selves as individuals is more vital to us than any diet or exercise program; it protects us against the worst toxins and the greatest adversity. This connection is the most fundamental need we have because it generates our most authentic state of being.
Despite our propensity for one-upsmanship and competition, our most basis urge always is to connect.