A surprising medical condition might explain why some longtime couples die as they lived – together.
They’re the kind of romantic tragedies that make headlines.
Elderly couples who have spent their lives together remain inseparable even in their last breaths — dying within hours of each other. It happened to a couple from Crookston, Minn., recently: Eva Vevea held the hand of her husband, Clifford, one last time after he died of natural causes. Hours later, she was gone, too.
But can a person really die of a broken heart?
“It’s very real,” said Dr. Scott Sharkey, a cardiologist with the Minneapolis Heart Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.
Doctors even have a not-so-subtle name for it: broken heart syndrome.
“Any cardiologist in town will tell you that they’ve seen several cases of this,” Sharkey said. He studies the medical condition, which is triggered by sudden, major stress. The symptoms are similar to a heart attack: shortness of breath, chest pains, an accelerated heartbeat.
For senior citizens, this type of sudden heart injury can be especially dangerous when combined with pre-existing conditions and their age. Researchers at the University of Glasgow conducted a large study of more than 4,000 married couples, ages 45 to 64, and found that widows and widowers had a 30 percent elevated risk of death in the first six months after their spouses had died.
There’s no way to know for sure if broken heart syndrome caused the death of Eva Vevea or any other elderly person who has died soon after losing a spouse, Sharkey said. But he acknowledged that it is certainly possible. Of all the triggers known to cause broken heart syndrome, “grief is certainly a powerful one.”
Partners to the end
Clifford and Eva Vevea started out as dancing partners.
The couple became partners off the dance floor, too, marrying in 1947. A photo from their wedding day shows the pair standing side by side, smiling under a July sun. The same smiles appear in family photos that document a 66-year bond.
“They did everything together,” said son, Clifton “Kip” Vevea.
Toward the end, they shared the same room at a local hospital and asked to have their beds pushed together.
Clifford, at 93, went first. He died from complications related to heart surgery. Ninety-year-old Eva — who had been on dialysis for years — chose to stop her treatment once her husband passed away. She died a few hours after him.
“I think the only reason my mother hung on was because of Dad,” Kip said. “Once there was no chance of him surviving, she just gave up, too.”
Dr. Anne Murray, a specialist in geriatrics and internal medicine at Hennepin County Medical Center, said she sees cases of elderly couples dying together all the time.
“In some cases, when someone has a chronic serious illness,” she said, “some people will basically will themselves to survive until their spouse dies. And then they say, ‘I’m done.’ ”
But not everyone dies from this peculiar condition. The Minneapolis Heart Institute has been researching cases of broken heart syndrome since 2001, and has seen 350 patients with it, Sharkey said. Of those patients, 90 percent are women.