Couple married for 71 years die on the same day, but is dying of a broken heart really possible?

Is it really possible to die of a broken heart? [Photo: Getty]
Is it really possible to die of a broken heart? [Photo: Getty]

After 71 years of happy marriage, an elderly couple have both died on the same day, within just 12 hours of each other.

Herbert DeLaigle, 94, died at 2.20am on Friday morning and his wife Frances, 88, died at 2.20pm the same day, WDRW reports.

The couple, from the US had met in a café 71 years ago when Frances was just 16 and Herbert was 22.

"Frances worked at a little cafe we had in Waynesboro named White Way Cafe," Herbert DeLaigle said in an interview last year with WRDW/WAGT.

"I kept seeing her going in and out, in and out and I had my eyes set on her. And then I finally got up the nerve to ask her if she would go out with me sometime."

Though their deaths in such quick succession could have been a coincidence, no doubt some will question whether in fact Frances’ could be down to a broken heart.

Can you really die of a broken heart?

When couples or family members die soon after the death of a loved one, the second death is often attributed to a broken heart.

There are many examples of the alleged phenomenon.

The death of Carrie Fisher late in 2016 was cited by some family members to be too much for the actress’s mum to bear, with Debbie Reynolds passing just a day later.

According to Todd Fisher, Debbie’s son, his mother actually died of a broken heart. Opening up to E! News about the 84-year-old’s mindset just before her stroke, he said:

“She went to be with Carrie. In fact, those were the last words that she spoke this morning.

“She held it together beautifully, obviously, for the last couple of days but she was under a lot of emotion and stress from the loss [of Carrie] and it’s pretty much what triggered this event.”

READ MORE: Is it really possible to die of a 'broken heart' after a break up?

Debbie Reynolds died just one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher [Photo: Getty]
Debbie Reynolds died just one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher [Photo: Getty]

When couples or close family members die in quick succession, it’s understandable that the second death is often sentimentally attributed to a broken heart. But is it really possible to die of a broken heart?

Some experts certainly believe it is. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the condition, which also goes by the names stress-induced cardiomyopathy and takotsubo cardiomyopathy can happen in people who’ve never actually had heart disease.

The British Heart Foundation describes takotsubo cardiomyopathy as a “temporary condition where your heart muscle becomes suddenly weakened or stunned. The left ventricle, one of the heart’s chambers, changes shape.”

It can be brought on by a shock. “About three quarters of people diagnosed with takotsubo cardiomyopathy have experienced significant emotional or physical stress prior to becoming unwell,” the charity says. This stress could include bereavement.

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.

Many people simply recover – the stress goes away and the heart returns to its normal shape. But in some extreme cases, the change in the shape of the heart can bring on a heart attack and lead to death.

It seems some experts believe broken heart syndrome could lead to strokes too. A 2014 study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, found that the death of a partner can increase a person’s risk of suffering a heart attack or a stroke in the following month.

British 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 spouse’s death compared with people who had not lost a partner.

Other European studies have also found that mortality rates can increase after the loss of loved ones. The death of a spouse, sibling and a child or indeed of an older child, have all been linked to higher mortality.

When loved ones die in quick succession it is often attributed to a broken heart [Photo: Getty]
When loved ones die in quick succession it is often attributed to a broken heart [Photo: Getty]

READ MORE: Touching moment WWII veteran is reunited with his long-lost love

Like Herbert and Frances DeLaigle, there is certainly some anecdotal evidence that broken heart syndrome exists.

The BBC describes the example of 90-year-old, Don and 87-year-old Maxine Simpson from California.

The couple had been inseparable since meeting at a bowling alley in 1952 and were married for 62 years.

When Maxine died first in 2014, Don quickly followed just four hours later.

And last year American Footballer, Doug Flutie revealed on social media that his parents had died within just an hour of each other.

“My Dad had been ill and died of a heart attack in the hospital and my Mum, less than an hour later had a sudden heart attack and passed away,” he wrote on Facebook.

“They say you can die of a broken heart and I believe it.”

Whether loved ones who die in quick succession can ever be officially attributed to a broken heart is difficult to say. But more research is obviously needed to better understand how grief can increase a person’s risk of mortality.

In the mean time, it’s a good idea for anyone going through a bereavement to be offered the support they need to cope with their grief both mentally and physically.