Can someone really die from a broken heart?

Scientists for years have studied what has become known as broken heart syndrome, or the widow effect. And while it is certainly more common for a widow or a widower to live for many years after the death of a beloved spouse, there is a clearly documented phenomenon of longtime partners dying within days or weeks of each other.

This was the case for Lucien Guay, 89, and his wife, Dorothy Guay, 88, of Old Orchard Beach. He died on Jan. 11 after a brief illness. Twelve hours later, his wife was rushed to Maine Medical Center in Portland with kidney, heart and respiratory failure. She died on Jan. 18 as family members were attending his wake.

A cardiologist who cared for Dot Guay said she is a clear example of the phenomenon.

“In her case, she was suffering from a combination of illness, the predominant one being broken heart syndrome,” said Dr. Samip Vasaiwala, an interventional cardiologist at Maine Medical Center in Portland. The type of heart attack she suffered – takotsubo cardiomyopathy – is apparently caused by a surge of stress and is often referred to in the medical community as broken heart syndrome.

“It’s not something we see often, but when we do, there is clearly a link to an event that tips it off,” Vasaiwala said. “She had a stressor – her husband passing away.”

While a stress-induced heart attack is most often associated with broken heart syndrome, the broader phenomenon of one spouse dying shortly after the other can involve a variety of illnesses and is sometimes called the widow effect or widower effect.

One of the most comprehensive studies about the phenomenon was done by Harvard Medical School and published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006. It examined the medical records of more than 1 million people – 518,240 couples – from 1993 to 2003.

For those over age 65, the death of a wife increased a husband’s risk of death 53 percent during the next 30 days, according to the study. The death of a husband increased his wife’s risk by 61 percent during that month. The study also found that the illness of a spouse can raise the risk of death in the other.

According to researchers, the death of a lifelong spouse can jeopardize a surviving spouse’s health through a combination of factors, from the inattention to one’s personal health to the stress, sadness and loss of a partnership.

“I’ve known of these stories like this one,” said Dr. Doug Sawyer, chief of cardiac services at Maine Medical Center, referring to Lucien and Dorothy Guay. “It’s pretty common for us to meet a patient in the hospital who has gotten much more ill right on the heels of their spouse passing away. It sounds like she was acutely depressed after the loss of her spouse. Certainly you see people lose their will to live and things can go quickly after that.”

Vasaiwala said he has treated patients with broken heart syndrome about 10 times in his eight years as a cardiologist. He said the condition is not always fatal and it can be successfully treated. He urged people who are struggling with the loss of a loved one to seek medical attention if they begin to experience symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath.

“When you have these stress situations, those types of symptoms should be taken seriously,” Vasaiwala said.