Can a person die of a broken heart?

The partner of Irma Garcia who was murdered in the Uvalde shooting died two days after the shooting, and many believe it was from a broken heart.

Depression (illustrative) (photo credit: ING IMAGE)
Depression (illustrative)
(photo credit: ING IMAGE)

Two days after the shooting in Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in which an 18-year-old shooter took the lives of 19 children and two teachers – including Irma Garcia – Joe Garcia, her partner of 25 years, died of an apparent heart attack.

Many people, however, including Irma’s cousin Debra Austin, believe that he died of a broken heart.

“I truly believe Joe died of a broken heart, and losing the love of his life of more than 25 years was too much to bear,” she wrote on a GoFundMe page to raise money for the Garcias’ surviving four children.

What is broken heart syndrome?

Broken heart syndrome, or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (TCM), is a condition that can be triggered by a number of stressful or traumatic events.

 A law enforcement personnel works at the scene of a mass shooting in Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas, US, May 25, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/NURI VALLBONA) A law enforcement personnel works at the scene of a mass shooting in Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas, US, May 25, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/NURI VALLBONA)

When a person experiences TCM, a part of their heart becomes enlarged and fails to pump blood normally, depriving the vital organs of blood (and therefore oxygen). In some cases, the coronary arteries will spasm, causing a blockage of blood flow to the heart.

The symptoms of TCM feel almost identical to those of a heart attack. The key difference is that in a heart attack, a major blockage in one of the coronary arteries triggers symptoms, whereas in TCM there is no physical blockage.

The three most common symptoms of broken heart disease are sudden, sharp chest pain, shortness of breath and fainting. It can be diagnosed through a physical exam, as well as various other ways including chest X-rays, blood work, and ECG or EKG or a cardiac MRI. 

Who is most likely to be at risk for broken heart syndrome?

A person with a family history of TCM might be at a higher risk, as well as people suffering from anxiety disorders. However, things that can increase risk for heart attacks, such as smoking, do not increase the risk of TCM.

A 2021 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed that from 2016-2017, the diagnosis of broken heart syndrome increased at least 6-10 times more rapidly for women between the ages of 60-74 than it did for any other group.

According to John Hopkins University cardiologist Dr. Ilan Wittstein, the exact reason for this is not known, although it is thought that the estrogen hormone helps to protect the heart from the harmful effects of adrenaline. Once women reach menopause and their estrogen levels decline, they become particularly vulnerable to the cardiac effects of sudden stress.

But Wittstein said in a recent interview with USA Today that despite women being more likely to suffer from broken heart syndrome, men who get it are at a higher risk of dying.

TCM is less fatal than a heart attack, with a mortality rate of 2% compared to around 12%, but it can still be life threatening, especially if treatment is not administered fast enough. But if a person receives the correct treatment and follow-up care, they usually make a full recovery.

Is it likely that Joe Garcia died of broken heart syndrome?

Is it likely that Joe Garcia died of broken heart syndrome?

According to Dr. Deepak Bhatt, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, it is not only possible but likely.

Speaking to NBC News, Bhatt explained that, “In general, when broken heart syndrome occurs, it’s after an extreme stressor,” making it extremely likely that the stress of his partner’s tragic and violent death is what triggered the syndrome in him.

“It’s a classic case of broken heart syndrome from what’s been described.”

Dr. Deepak Bhatt

However, until an autopsy has been performed, it’s impossible to know for sure, and in fact, a heart attack can be triggered by the same stressors as broken heart syndrome.

“Either type of heart attack can be triggered by extreme emotional stress,” Bhatt said. “The sort that would happen if someone just heard, for example, that their wife had died.”