Did Debbie Reynolds die of a broken heart?

The death of actress Debbie Reynolds, one day after the passing of her daughter Carrie Fisher, has prompted many people to wonder if she died of a broken heart.

Dr. Scott Sharkey at the Minneapolis Heart Institute at Abbott Northwestern has been leading research into Broken Heart Syndrome since 2001.

“It’s analogous to an emotional concussion to your heart,” Sharkey said.

While Reynolds' family says she died of a stroke, Sharkey believes it’s possible the stress and grief played a role in her death.

“The brain is connected to the heart by nerve endings,” Sharkey said. “That goes back to our early evolution when we had to instantly escape a threat, such as a dinosaur or tyrannosaurus so that when the brain received a threat the heart would respond. The heart rate would elevate and allow us to run quickly.”

Broken Heart Syndrome is when a patient experiences abrupt chest pain and shortness of breath, usually triggered by an emotionally or physically stressful event.

“In the early hours, you cannot distinguish this from a heart attack,” said Dr. Sharkey who has treated 400 patients believed to suffer from the syndrome. “We started seeing patients—women—who looked like they were having a massive heart attack from a blocked artery and we would take pictures of their arteries and they were pristine.”

Dr. Sharkey says even experienced physicians could have a hard time distinguishing between a heart attack and Broken Heart Syndrome. X-rays will show that a person suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome lacks severe plaque buildup in a coronary artery, like they would during a heart attack.

Sharkey says 90 percent of patients are women and most are over the age of 60.

Treatment and prevention through medication has been largely unsuccessful so far. 

“None of them are effective at preventing this from occurring because we believe the magnitude of the response from the brain is so powerful that it overcomes our drug," Sharkey said. 

Sharkey says he is dedicated to finding out what predisposes patients to Broken Heart Syndrome. He is also hoping to find a medication that can prevent recurrence.