The well-known marriage liturgy “till death do us part” could be true for some couples, especially those who have been together for a very long time. The media occasionally tells a story of a husband or wife who passed away within hours or days of their spouse, such as the recent story of the Ohio couple — Kenneth and Helen Felumlee — who died within 15 hours of each other after spending over 70 years together. Most of these deaths are not pure coincidence. The primary cause of why some couples die close, some medical experts say, is stress cardiomyopathy, a condition that has both physiological and psychosocial ties.
Stress cardiomyopathy, also known as “broken heart syndrome,” is an intense physical or emotional stress that severely weakens the heart, which is often triggered by grief (e.g. death of a loved one), fear, shock, or extreme anger, according to the John Hopkins Medicine website. Physical stress include emphysema, excessive bleeding, seizure, and stroke. Although patients with stress cardiomyopathy may exhibit similar symptoms to those with cardiovascular disease, such as chest pain, low blood pressures, and shortness of breath, the former may not have a history or are at risk for heart disease. Usually, these symptoms of stress cardiomyopathy patients start within minutes or hours after the person is exposed to an (often) unexpected, severe stress. An article published in Heart Failure Clinics stated that stress cardiomyopathy occurs mostly among postmenopausal women — about 90 percent of the known cases.
It differs from the common heart attack in a few ways. Most heart attacks happen because of blood clots or blockages of the coronary arteries, which supplies blood to the heart. In patients with stress cardiomyopathy, they have normal coronary arteries or do not have severe clots or blockages, according to John Hopkins Medicine. Rather, the heart cells are “stunned” — not killed — by the adrenaline and other stress hormones. While some people recover quickly, others can suffer deteriorating health and eventually die.
Dr. Ilan Wittstein, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, stated in The Augusta Chronicle that when one spouse dies, the second spouse has a higher risk of death within the next year. “That has to be more than coincidence.” Wittstein, who had researched stress cardiomyopathy’s effects on the heart, explained that large amounts of stress hormones can cause heart muscle damage and impair the normal heart rate. Although most people can recover from it, sometimes the condition is fatal. Getting too much stress or maintaining the stress level for a long time can make people sick and die from secondary causes. Stress cardiomyopathy can sometimes be the last straw that causes some couples to die close, especially if one spouse has higher risk of heart disease or stroke.
On February 2014, a Georgia couple — Charles “Bubba” and Betty Tabor — that was covered in The Augusta Chronicle also had died close after 62 years of marriage. After Bubba had passed away from complications of a fall two months prior, Betty died a little more than 24 hours later in her sleep. She also had leukemia and suffered congestive heart failure.
Dale White, an associate professor from Georgia Regents University said in an interview that couples who die close together usually “have a strong dependency on each other.” The social interactions between the couple, such as eating or doing activities together, can affect their bond. A severance of that bond could trigger stress cardiomyopathy.
While not every couple dies close when one spouse dies, stress cardiomyopathy is a strong risk factor to mortality, especially among the elderly. It is also a risk factor for parents who experienced the death of their child or a teenager who lost his or her best friend. Aside from medications, treatment from stress cardiomyopathy can include counseling or talk therapy, social gatherings with close family and friends, and physical activity.
By Nick Ng