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Dying from a broken heart.

Whether there is such a thing as death from a broken heart remains to be proved. However, we cannot help wondering about the cause of an all-too-common phenomenon--the sudden death of an elderly, but seemingly healthy, surviving spouse soon after the death of his or her partner of many years.

We are constantly reminded of the usual risk factors in coronary artery disease--lack of exercise, high cholesterol, smoking, etc. In any event, half of the deaths from this disease in the United States cannot be attributed to such factors. Clearly, we have much to learn about heart disease and its causes.

Many scientists pooh-pooh the notion that psychological factors can play a significant role in the development of heart disease. Nevertheless, much observational evidence tends to support a hypothetical connection between mind and heart. People who live alone, for example, are at an increased risk of dying from a heart attack. One study nearly 30 years ago showed that persons who enjoyed extended family relationships, church membership, and other group activities lived longer and had fewer diseases, accidents, and mental disorders than those who led more isolated lives.

A recent study of Japanese families in the San Francisco area tends to support the view that social isolation (in this case, being isolated from one's family) more likely causes much disease. The study compared family members who adhered to the traditional Japanese culture against those who adopted a more Americanized lifestyle. One's roles within Japanese culture, including work, are integrated within the family structure. The Americanized family members, for whom business and outside social contacts were more the center of their lives, had five times the rate of coronary artery disease.

These results might be attributable to other factors--diet or other known risk factors--but the researchers adjusted for these. Perhaps more conclusive results will be forthcoming from Japan itself, as the traditional employer-employee lifetime relationships are beginning to give way to the more stressful Western model.

In our own culture, we see too often the pattern of a lifetime's hard work with minimal outside interests leading to death not long after retirement. No conclusive evidence exists yet to prove whether loneliness is a significant factor in premature death from heart or other disease. There is no doubt, however, that group activities immensely improve one's quality of life after retirement, the death of a spouse, or simply being forced by circumstances to live alone.

Friends are good medicine, notes Dr. Harvey Simon, author of Staying Well: Your Complete Guide to Preventive Medicine (Houghton Mifflin, 1992). He recommends developing hobbies and other interests, as well as physical exercise, to bring one into contact with other people. Everyone needs diversion at any stage of life, and whatever each of us can do to encourage the elderly in this regard will benefit us all.
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Publication:Medical Update
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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