top of page

Successful Aging: Dying of a broken heart can be a reality

Q My closest friend and mentor just died at age 77. She was married to the love of her life for 55 years. One week after the funeral, her husband suffered a severe heart attack, missed her funeral and is now in the Intensive Care Unit. Is this unusual? Do you have any suggestions on what we can do to be supportive to him?

— E.R.

A Dear E.R.:

I am sorry for the loss of your best friend and mentor. Such relationships are a gift. Experiencing the grief of losing a spouse or partner affects not only the emotional and mental health of the surviving spouse but one’s physical health as well. Studies indicate that a surviving spouse or partner is likely to develop health problems in the weeks or months that follow. A study in the Journal of the American Medication Association of Internal Medicine found that when individuals lose a spouse or partner they were more likely to have a heart attack or stroke within the next 30 days.

Dying of a broken heart is a reality.

The stress caused by grief can affect changes in blood pressure, heart rate and blood clotting. Although real, the relationship between bereavement and cardiovascular problems resulting in death is small, according to Dr. Peter Stone, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School as noted in a Harvard Health Blog. Death of a grieving mate shortly after the death of a spouse has a name. It’s called the widowhood effect and seems to be more prevalent for men than women. Harvard sociologists found that among older couples, men are 22 percent more likely to die shortly after the death of their spouse compared with 17 percent of women.


Why do these seemingly premature deaths occur?

Traditional gender roles: Older men and women have been socialized differently. Women in general seek connections and relationships that serve them well when faced with widowhood and creating a new life. This applies less to men. Men who drive to be independent can easily become lonely and isolated when they stop driving. Additionally it’s the woman who often initiates and maintains social connections with friends and family. Men often wonder why no one has called them or invited them to dinner. One reason is that they may have had little experience in being the initiator or sustainer of relationships.

Change in lifestyle habits: A couple may have taken a walk every evening; the surviving mate no longer engages in such activity. Sleep may be disturbed and medication may be skipped because no one is there to remind him. It’s easy to forget the basics that include eating a healthful diet, getting daily exercise and taking one’s medications.

Caregivers: Older caregivers have a 63 percent greater risk of death than older people who are not caring for their mates, according to American Medical Association research. We know that many long-term caregivers suffer from stress, exhaustion, health conditions and depression, which may be contributing factors in their untimely death. Caregivers often sacrifice their own health to care for their partner.


Given what we know about the risks of the widowhood effect, what can we do to prevent it?

Encourage social connections: Social isolation is bad for one’s health and has been equated to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Suggest participating in a bereavement group: The conversations can be helpful in expressing one’s sadness, loneliness and grief, and then help to mobilize in taking small steps to move on to a life that will be different.

Get a sense of how the person is functioning: Is the house in order? Is he dressed and changing his clothes? Does the refrigerator have food in it? If needed, you might suggest some household help or companionship. A geriatric care manager specializing in assessment of older adults may be helpful.

Suggest embarking in a walking group: It not only provides exercise but social connections.

Determine if there is a Village in his geographic area: A Village is a non-profit membership organization for a particular geographic area that helps individuals remain in their home and stay connected to their community. See

Connect with the man’s children: Determine if they are “on board” attending to their father. Offer your support.

Therapy: If depression seems evident, suggest seeing a therapist.

E.R., thank you for your good question. He is lucky to have you as a caring friend.

Send emails to Helen Dennis at, or go to

bottom of page