When Fisher died on Tuesday, Reynolds took to Facebook to thank her daughter’s fans for their prayers and support—a graceful tribute to her daughter’s life that tragically turned out to be the last time we’d hear from her.
“She held it together beautifully, obviously, for the last couple of days but she was under a lot of emotion and stress from the loss [of Carrie] and it’s pretty much what triggered this event,” Todd Fisher, Reynolds’s son, told E! News shortly after his mother suffered a suspected stroke and died a mere 24 hours after losing her daughter, noting that her dying wish was to be with Carrie. “More specifically, she said that she really, she was under a lot of stress.”
Fisher may not be a medical professional, but research about the effects of stress on vascular health shows he’s spot-on.
In 2006, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine confirmed that there’s a scientific reason why people use the terms “heartache” and “broken heart” to describe grief and lost love, publishing a study in The New England Journal of Medicine on how emotional shock and trauma can provoke a fatal heart condition commonly called “broken heart syndrome.”
Known in the medical world as stress cardiomyopathy, the condition develops when a surge of stress hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine weaken the heart muscles, resulting in symptoms that mimic a heart attack.
“People who are subjected to acute stress, whether it’s grief or fear or anger, may also have a true heart attack, when plaque in the artery ruptures and forms a blood clot,” Dr. Ilan Wittstein, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins and lead author of the 2006 “broken heart syndrome” study, told The Daily Beast.
Reynolds may not have died from broken heart syndrome, but grief from the loss of her daughter may well have been too acute for her to carry on living.
“When blood pressure surges with stress, plaque can rupture in blood vessels in the brain just as it can in the heart, resulting in a stroke,” Wittstein said.
Women are less likely than men to have cardiovascular issues when they’re younger because estrogen neutralizes stress hormones, but the risk of heart attack and stroke increases dramatically in post-menopausal women. That may explain why 90 percent of cases of stress cardiomyopathy occur in women, Wittstein said.
“In general, there’s a greater risk of vascular failure during a period of stress for older women than for younger women, because their estrogen supply acts as a protective mechanism against those stress hormones.”
Last year, ex-NFL player Doug Flutie’s mother suffered a fatal heart attack within an hour after her husband passed away.
While Flutie’s father had been sick in the hospital, his mother was not in poor health prior to her husband’s death—an indication that her heart may have quite literally been broken by her loss, as reported in The Daily Beast.
A 2014 study published in Jama Internal Medicine compared 30,500 people between the ages of 60 and 89 who had recently lost spouses or partners to 83,588 non-grieving people in the same age range and found that those who had lost a loved one were more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke within the next 30 days than their non-grieving cohorts.
The same study concluded that grief was more likely to trigger severe cardiovascular issues than other stress-related emotions because its effects are thought to persist longer than, say, anger or anxiety.