Can you die of a broken heart?

Ryan McVay/Getty Images
Ryan McVay/Getty Images
It isn't rare for long-term couples to die in close succession.

What happened to an older woman named Dorothy Lee wasn't all that unusual. In 2010, The Wall Street Journal reported that after learning her husband of 40 years had died suddenly in a car accident, Lee started getting chest pains reminiscent of an impending heart attack [source: Winslow]. It was as though her body was revolting against the unexpected loss.

When a long-time spouse dies, it isn't that uncommon for potentially life-threatening health problems to arise in his or her partner soon afterward, or for chronic conditions to take a grave turn. In fact, anecdotal evidence cites husbands and wives who inexplicably die within weeks, or even days, of each other, and empirical studies have supported that phenomenon. Separate studies involving thousands of couples in Scotland and Israel concluded that the risk of death among widows and widowers surges anywhere from 30 to 50 percent during the first six months after their beloveds pass [source: Dahlstrom]. After that initial period of bereavement, the statistical risk of death diminishes [source: Martikainen and Valkonen].

This type of extreme mind-body connection appears to be more common when spousal death is unexpected -- as in the case of Dorothy Lee's husband -- and the surviving partner is ill-prepared to forge on alone. A 1996 study of 158,000 Finnish couples found the highest incidence rate of excess mortality, or statistically unforeseen death, correlated to the accidental, sudden passing of one spouse [source: Martikainen and Valkonen]. Medical doctors have attributed that pattern to chronic health problems, psychologists to grief-induced stress and social workers to lack of a support system. Romantics, meanwhile, might sum it up more sweetly as the byproduct of a broken heart -- and in some cases, they might not be so far from the truth.

At least, that's what Dorothy Lee experienced on the day her husband died. It turned out that her chest pains weren't the result of blocked arteries, but rather a condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome.