Can you die from a broken heart?

Bereavement and dying of a broken heart

This is very emotive topic.  I am a solicitor and act for many bereaved families for over 30 years.  I have recently read about takotsubo syndrome a condition that affects the heart following the death of a loved one.  

I have heard for many years that someone can die of a broken heart due to a bereavement following the loss of a husband, wife, partner or child.  The heart no longer wants to beat and the pain becomes unbearable.  Often you read, particularly with older couples when a wife or husband dies the survivor does not live very long following the loss.  This pain of loss has been described as ‘takotsubo syndrome’ often referred to as broken heart syndrome, which is a sudden and acute form of heart failure.

Such are the tales that you hear or read about are not uncommon.  I have done some research and found another condition called the ‘widowhood effect.  In a 2014 study it highlighted a significant increase in the risk of death within the first three months for individuals whose spouses had recently died, indicating a 66% higher chance. Previous studies had suggested even higher probabilities, reaching up to 90%. Surprisingly, the research debunked the notion that men faced a greater risk than women, revealing equal chances for both genders. Beyond the initial three months, surviving spouses still had a 15% elevated risk of dying.

But the widowhood effect in the study does not point to takotsubo syndrome but that the risk of dying is due to other factors that could be due to the level of depression in close marital relationships, with homeowners experiencing heightened distress possibly due to increased responsibilities. Financial dependence and reliance on spouses for tasks led to post-widowhood anxiety in women. Abrupt, unexpected deaths increased stress, particularly when it resulted in an immediate loss of financial and emotional support.

But takotsubo syndrome does not appear to have played significant role in early mortality in that study. However the condition may not have been considered in detail but the report’s findings do refer to widowed men facing higher risks of conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).


What is takotsubo syndrome?

Takotsubo syndrome was first identified in Japan in 1990 and referred to as broken heart syndrome.  A bereavement can trigger an emotional distress, that can cause a chest pain similar to heart attacks.  The syndrome typically arises from intense emotional or physical stress, a loss of a loved one like a bereavement, can bring on this condition. It typically occurs when dis-tress signals prompted by upsetting events such as the death of a relative travel from the brain to the heart.

Although it is estimated that around 30% of people cannot identify a specific trigger, emotional trauma remains a prominent factor. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, as it is medically termed is apparently named from the unique shape the left ventricle resembling a Japanese octopus called “takotsubo.”

Is a heart attack treated differently?

A heart  attack is different from a broken heart. A heart attack is characterised by the heart muscle’s sudden weakening or ‘stunning,’ leading to a change in the shape of the left ventricle, one of the heart’s chambers. This alteration impairs the heart’s ability to pumip blood efficiently, resulting in symptoms that mimic those of a heart attack, such as chest pain, breathlessness, or collapse.

Presently, there is no unanimous agreement among experts on the optimal treatment for Takotsubo syndrome. Current approaches involve employing medications typically prescribed for other heart conditions such as heart failure and heart attacks. It’s crucial to note that Takotsubo syndrome differs significantly from these conventional heart conditions.

In a study, Dana Dawson, a professor from the University of Aberdeen’s cardiology and cardiovascular research unit, has said the symptoms of takotsubo cardiomyopathy could resemble those of a heart attack, including shortness of breath and chest pain, but is unlike a heart attack as patients do not suffer from a blockage of the arteries that supply the heart with blood.   However the medical profession were treating takotsubo cardiomyopathy patients similar to those who suffered from a heat attack.  The professor is quoted as saying that:

“…takotsubo cardiomyopathy is a different condition entirely and unlike a heart attack, patients don’t suffer from a blockage of the arteries that supply the heart with blood,.

The study of broken heart syndrome

In the study heart attacks and broken heart syndrome patients were analysed. The research team, were surprised by the consistent medication approach with classical heart attacks and found similar prescription rates for both cardiovascular and non-cardiovascular medications. The study, analysing data from 3,720 published in the journal JACC and reported in the British Heat Foundation, shown that individuals over a decade, revealed increased mortality and susceptibility to heart conditions, equating the chance of death to that of heart attack survivors.

The professor has indicated that the data showed that the medical profession were not treating this condition correctly, that patients suffering from broken heart syndrome have increased mortality compared with the general population, an increased vulnerability to developing heart conditions and as much chance of dying from this as people who have suffered heart attacks.  The study highlights the inadequacy of how a bereavement following broken heart syndrome requires more research and a need for tailored and nuanced therapeutic strategies.

Sinéad O’Connor die of a broken heart?

In the press that Sinéad O’Connor, the Irish singer and activist, had died of natural causes..  Indeed a coroner’s office in London, England, confirmed that this is the case. It may be that she sadly died from a “broken heart.”

Can you claim for a bereavement award?

In the context of Takotsubo syndrome, an additional layer of complexity arises concerning bereaved families in England and Wales. The existing compensation framework fails to recognise the emotional and psychological toll on families, leaving an unsettling injustice system.

As medical research delves deeper into understanding this complex condition, advocating for a holistic approach encompassing medical, emotional, and societal dimensions becomes imperative.

But the Government make the law and set the amount of compensation the loss of a loved one will receive following a bereavement.  To claim for bereavement damages, you must be a spouse, civil partner or parent if the child is under 18. Unmarried couples who have been together for at least two years are also included.

How much is a bereavement award for a broken heart?

The current bereavement award is fixed at £15,120 from 1st May 2020 up from £12,980 previously.  The amount is obviously unjust and bears no reflection to the grief, pain and aftermath of a bereavement.  However there are many other aspects where a survivor and family left behind can claim addition compensation such as funeral expenses, grave stone and dependency among other heads of loss.  In years to come, following this study concerning takotsubo cardiomyopathy the Government may realise that the pain and hurt following a bereavement may be classed as a personal injury and look to increase this vastly under compensated claim. I very much doubt this however.


Who can claim for a bereavement award?

We have a law that not only provides a derogatory figure for bereavement following the loss of a loved one, it also limits family members who are entitled to a bereavement award.  This is all found under an old law back in 1976 under the Fatal Accidents Act where if a family member is entitled to a bereavement award,  it is limited to a one-off payment.  Currently a bereavement award is limited to the wife or husband or civil partner of the deceased. The only exception is where the deceased was a minor, in which case his or her parents may be entitled to the Bereavement Award.

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Posted: January 15, 2024 at 9:16 am