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Broken heart syndrome: induced by stress, or a divine hand?

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Wed, February 10th, 2010

Upon finding his lover lifeless in a crypt, a young man guzzles a vile of poison.

Apical Ballooning Syndrome, better known as “broken heart syndrome”, may not be complete hooey. J.A. and Relda Auger, a Louisiana couple that had been married 75 years, died less than 24 hours apart. There are many other examples.

The maiden awakens, spots her man dead and buries a dagger in her heart. Ah, Romeo and Juliet, a love so strong it vanquished life. Their youthful tale is fictional, but elderly lovers’ dying one after the other is actually a phenomenon of significant scholarly intrigue.

“We see it all the time,” the medical director at a Washington state hospice recently told a reporter. But the question remains, do these cases result from coincidence, a true medical condition or something more sublime, perhaps even the intervention of a divine hand? A suite of examples indicates it may be a bit of all three.

J.A. ran a trucking company and Relda was his gal, the Louisiana couple had been married 75 years. J.A. died on a Sunday, at age 98. Relda, age 90, died less than 24 hours later. “I’ve known them since I was a kid, and I never heard a cross word between them,” said the local Sheriff. “It seems natural that they would leave this world together. They were that close.”

In Northumbria, in northern England, Stewart Whitfield and his wife Olga had fatal heart attacks within minutes of each other. He was 56, she was 61. “I heard sirens,” a neighbor told reporters. “Soon after, I saw them bringing two bodies out of a house.” An article about the incident lists other British couples that have died eerily close together, including the parents of a famous pop singer and a former Prime Minister and his wife of 67 years.

In Seattle, Virginia and Aurlo Bonney had been married 65 years. After a series of strokes, 92 year-old Aurlo was bed-bound. Virginia was in good physical health but had Alzheimer’s. She died in June of 2008, Aurlo quietly died eight days later. His death certificate indicated atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease but his son claims the cause of death was a condition with a much simpler name, a broken heart.

Dying of a broken heart may not, in fact, be complete hooey. The formal condition is called Apical Ballooning Syndrome (ABS), better known as “broken heart syndrome”, and was first described in Japan during the 1990s. In a patient suffering from ABS, the heart’s main pumping chamber stretches, balloons out, weakens and fails.

The syndrome has been diagnosed mainly in postmenopausal women, reports a 2008 MSNBC article, though the reason for this is unknown. The article links ABS to close-in-time husband and wife deaths via several studies. A 2007 paper published by researchers at the University of Glasgow followed more than 4,000 couples and found that, on average, people who had lost a partner were at least 30 percent more likely to die in the first six months following the death than contemporaries who had not lost partners. And a Jerusalem study notes that a bereaved spouse’s risk of death in the first six months rose by as much as 50 percent.

But could the cause not be something less clinical? At the funeral of a Louisiana man in his eighties who died less than two months after his wife, one reporter questioned whether god might not have wanted to reunite the couple as soon as possible.

“I watched in awe with others who expressed similar feelings,” she said. “People at the church declared the source of love was God.”

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