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Debbie Reynolds' Death: Can You Die of a Broken Heart?
Debbie Reynolds (right) with her daughter, Carrie Fisher, in North Hollywood, California in 2014.
Credit: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com

Actress Debbie Reynolds died from a stroke on Dec. 28, just one day after her daughter, actress Carrie Fisher, died from a heart attack, Variety reported. Reynolds, who starred in film classics such as "Singin' in the Rain," was 84.

Reynolds told her son shortly before her stroke, "I miss her so much. I want to be with Carrie," reported TMZ.

Did the death of her daughter possibly play a role in Reynolds' own death? In other words, can a person die of a broken heart? [Heart of the Matter: 7 Things to Know About Your Ticker]

Indeed, broken heart syndrome "is real and it exists," said Dr. Scott Krakower, the assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in New Hyde Park, New York. Krakower did not treat Reynolds.

The condition, which also goes by the names stress-induced cardiomyopathy and takotsubo cardiomyopathy, can happen in people who have never had heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

Broken heart syndrome can happen in response to any acute major stressors in someone's life, Krakower told Live Science. This can include the death of a significant other or a loved one, but also frightening situations such a domestic dispute or a physical altercation, he said.

The syndrome occurs when a part of the heart becomes temporarily enlarged and cannot pump well, while the rest of the heart continues to function normally, or works even harder, the AHA said.

(The name "takotsubo cardiomyopathy" comes from the odd shape of the heart during this condition; in its enlarged state, the heart resembles a tako-tsubo, a fishing pot used to trap octopuses.)

As a result of broken heart syndrome, a person may develop an irregular heartbeat, or the heart may become too weak to pump enough blood throughout the body, which can lead to death, the AHA said.

The symptoms of broken heart syndrome, such as chest pain and shortness of breath, are similar to those of a heart attack, the AHA said. A major difference between the two, however, is that in broken heart syndrome, a person will not have blocked arteries or heart damage, the AHA said.

The exact cause of broken heart syndrome is unclear; however, scientists have proposed several hypothetical mechanisms, including excessive levels of stress hormones and spasms of an artery, Krakower said.

Reynolds had experienced at least one earlier stroke, USA Today reported.

A 2014 study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, found that the death of a spouse can increase a person's risk for a heart attack or a stroke in the following month. The researchers found that older adults who had lost their partners were about twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke in the 30 days following their partner's death compared with people who had not lost a spouse.

The researchers found that the link held even after they accounted for risk factors for heart attack or stroke, including age, heart disease and high blood pressure.

Krakower noted that it's unclear how often strokes occur as a result of broken heart syndrome, but that there are several cases reported in the literature.

However, a person is more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in the period after the death of someone close to him or her, whether specifically related to broken heart syndrome or not, he added.

The bottom line is that it's important for someone who has lost a loved one to be able to grieve properly and to express what he or she is feeling outwardly, rather than internalizing those feelings, Krakower said. And if people feel any physical symptoms after losing someone, they should go to their doctors, he said. 

Originally published on Live Science.