A couple days after George H.W. Bush was hospitalized following his wife's death last month, several news outlets questioned why Bush and other seniors get sick so soon after the loss of a loved one. There was Johnny Cash who died in May 2003, just four months after his wife, June, and actress Debbie Reynolds died the day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, died in 2016.
Age and other chronic conditions -- diabetes in Johnny Cash's case -- certainly play a factor. But a broken heart is much more than a cute cartoon heart with a jagged line splitting it in two. There is such a thing as broken-heart syndrome, and it can lead to temporary heart failure.
Dr. Robert Hendel, the director of Tulane University's Heart & Vascular Institute and a practicing cardiologist at University Medical Center can distinctly remember the first time he heard about broken heart syndrome about 15 years ago.
He was speaking at a conference in Japan when he was approached by several students who asked him about something called Takotsubo syndrome, a condition that causes the heart not to function after an episode of severe emotional stress. It was first discovered by Japanese researchers in 1990.
The name comes from a basket used by Japanese fishermen to trap octopus. The condition stiffens the heart so it takes on a shape resembling a takotsubo, or "octopus trap."
Several years after the conference in Japan, Hendel was working in Illinois when a patient came in suffering from acute heart failure. It was unusual because she had no pre-existing conditions.
The woman's heart had gone into shock after finding her daughter dead from an apparent suicide. The woman was sick for three weeks but made a full recovery, Hendel said.
"We are not talking about a little bit of stress. This is a shock caused by life changing event. Patients with broken heart syndrome can mostly recover. But once you've had it, you can get it again," he said.
A shocking or highly emotional event can cause the sudden release of a large number of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, which disrupts the heart's ability to pump blood.
"The disruption weakens the left ventricle causing it to balloon. The shape of the heart gives it away and makes it easy to diagnose," said Hendel.
Although the condition can lead to severe, short-term heart muscle failure, patients typically recover within weeks.
Women are more likely than men to experience the sudden, intense chest pain, which is a reaction to the sudden surge of stress hormones. Hendel said, in his experience, it has always been linked to an emotionally stressful event like a sudden death, a breakup or even a positive event like winning the lottery.
Since taking his role at Tulane's Heart & Vascular Institute a year ago, Hendel said he has seen at least three cases, which he called "a pretty fairly good number.
And can you actually die from a broken heart?
Hendel says "in rare cases, yes. Although the vast majority of patients are able to recover within weeks."
For more information on heart health visit www.heart.org.