Hollywood star Debbie Reynolds’ death, less than a day after that of her daughter Carrie Fisher, stirred wide sympathy for the actresses’ families Wednesday. The timing of their deaths, however, also prompted comments in line with a common trope: that Fisher’s mother had "died of a broken heart."
Hearts don’t literally break, of course. But grief’s physical manifestation has long been linked to heart health, according to the American Heart Association, and the common saying has lent its name to a documented medical condition: "broken heart syndrome."
Broken heart syndrome, known as stress cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, refers to a condition in which emotional or physical stress — good or bad — can cause the heart to weaken suddenly. Though it is usually not fatal, broken heart syndrome can cause intense pain in the chest, dizziness, nausea and shortness of breath, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
The syndrome is often mistaken for a heart attack, though unlike the latter, broken heart syndrome seems to stun cells in the heart with adrenaline rather than kill them outright. Most patients usually recover within weeks, compared to the months-long recovery time associated with cardiac arrests.
Broken heart syndrome has also often been associated specifically with bereavement. According to the BBC, a study published two years ago in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who had a loved one recently die suffered strokes or heart attacks at twice the rate of a control group of those who had not experienced a recent loss.
"We often use the term a 'broken heart' to signify the pain of losing a loved one," study co-author Dr. Sunil Shah told the BBC. "Our study shows that bereavement can have a direct effect on the health of the heart."
Details surrounding Reynolds’ death were unclear Thursday, though her son told news outlets that she was taken by ambulance to a Los Angeles hospital after suffering a stroke.
After her death, he told reporters at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center that his sister’s death had been “too much” for her.
"She’s now with Carrie and we’re all heartbroken," he said, according to the Associated Press.