Joe Paterno

01.23.12

Did Penn State's Sex-Abuse Case Bring On the Death of Joe Paterno?

Lung cancer may be the official cause of Joe Paterno's death, but the trauma of recent months may have helped speed his demise. Inside the mystery of Broken Heart Syndrome.

Joe Paterno was mere months into his forced retirement after allegations of sexual abuse within the worshipful sports culture of Penn State provoked an explosion as sudden as it was severe. At 85 years old, it left the former coach without the one thing that defined his existence.

The official cause of death was lung cancer, according to his wife. But his passing this weekend came so soon after the turbulent events that it’s impossible not to consider the connection. Stress exacerbates sickness, causing the immune system to rev up and inflammation to occur, which in turn affects cardiopulmonary health.

The sudden end of his storied career may also have played a role. “No one knows what keeps people alive, but the sense that you can build something in the near to distant future is important. He no longer had that,” says Michael Garfinkle, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Medical lore is replete with stories of spouses dying within days or weeks or each other, but there is no clear-cut medical proof or explanation.

And there is at least one known condition relevant to this line of thinking. In medical textbooks, it’s listed as takottsubo cardiomyopathy. But its nickname is much more evocative: Broken Heart Syndrome.

“He died of cancer. The urge to romanticize that and tidy up the story is there, but I’m strongly against that instinct.”

Many in the medical community outright reject that Paterno's death can be linked to emotional factors.

“He died of cancer. The urge to romanticize that and tidy up the story is there, but I’m strongly against that instinct,” says Kent Sepkowitz, a doctor of infectious disease in New York.

“If you can die of a broken heart, then the extension of that is that it’s your fault--that you have control over when you die. By extension, if you can just be happy all the time, you can live forever. It ascribes to events over which we have no control a tremendous amount of control.”

Joy Hirsch, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, weighed in over email.

“My first thought was that he might have assisted his death to avoid further facing the fall of his life's work,” she said.

“There is also the possibility that the stress of all of the exposure and criticism was involved in accelerating his already preexisting disease conditions. There is also the possibility that his death was unrelated to any of this... Without more information, there is no way of knowing.”