There were many ways of breaking a heart. Stories were full of hearts being broken by love, but what really broke a heart was taking away its dream – whatever that dream might be. – Pearl Buck  

A broken heart: The very idea has graced the arts for centuries – from Romeo and Juliet to Wuthering Heights and Downton Abbey. Yet can someone actually perish from the sadness of a lost love? Can a heart break?

The idea of the heart as the center of all emotions is often attributed to an ancient Roman physician named Galen. Of course, he also noted the source of passion could be found in the liver, though that idea has not survived the test of time. No matter the origins, the term “broken heart” remains in our lexicon.

Illinois State scholars from the School of Biological Sciences and the departments of English and sociology took a shot (no disrespect to Cupid or his arrows) at answering the question: Can one really die from a broken heart?

Sadness makes the heart beat slower

Craig Gatto

Craig Gatto

“Um, short answer? No,” said Professor of Biology Craig Gatto, the chair of the School of Biological Sciences and the resident cardiovascular physiologist on campus. “I’ve had my heart broken emotionally, and I know how it feels, but no, you cannot die from an emotionally ‘broken heart.’”

Patients can feel as though their heart is breaking, noted Gatto, when stress causes a tightness in the chest, or when sadness makes the heart beat slower. “The same rush of adrenaline that increases the heart rate in a flight-or-fight situation can have the converse effect and vagal stimulation that slows the heart rate,” said Gatto. “If you are really depressed, the heart rate can decrease significantly.”

image of Cynthia Huff

Cynthia Huff

Love taken to great Heights
“There is a famous scene in Wuthering Heights where Catherine tells Nelly, ‘I am Heathcliff,’” quotes Professor of English Cynthia Huff, who is the Department of English expert on Victorian literature. “There is this idea that Catherine and Heathcliff are conjoined, and they literally cannot exist without each other.”

According to Huff, the idea of oneness is celebrated in the Victorian “Cult of Sensibility,” that uplifts emotions (or sensibility) over sense. “The original notion was to keep sense and sensibility in balance,” said Huff, “but with the ‘Cult of Sensibility,’ strong emotions held sway.”

image of Wuthering Heights book cover

A version of Wuthering Heights from 1950 with illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg.

Though Catherine dies wasting away after giving birth to a child, Huff said her students are rarely forgiving of the Heights’ heroine. “They usually call her a drama queen,” said Huff with a laugh. “She refuses to eat. She refuses to sleep. When she dies, is it a broken heart? Is it Catherine making herself ill? Is she an early anorexic? Clearly, Brönte wants us to know she is suffering.”

Huff noted another character in Wuthering Heights, Hindley, could be said to die of a broken heart. “Hindley becomes increasingly self-destructive. He is an alcoholic, who drives himself further into his vices of drinking and gambling.”

Huff said the Cult of Sensibility still reigns. “We still live with the idea that there is one true love out there for us, and we will know it when we feel it,” she said. “There is a notion of people who are joined and cannot be torn asunder.”

A lonely heart more likely to break

Photo of Susan Sprecher

Susan Sprecher

The end of a relationship can lead to at least a temporary feeling of social isolation, said Professor of Sociology Susan Sprecher, who is the co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Human Relationships.

“Humans have a strong need to belong,” she said. “When we are ostracized or rejected, even by people we don’t know, it can lead to physiological measures that are not associated with good health.”

Sprecher noted studies that make connections between the health of relationships and the health of a person. “Social isolation is associated with everything from greater stress, lowered self-esteem and diminished self-regulation, which can affect the immune system,” she said.

As long as we have friends and family who can provide social support, it’s very likely your heart will not break.

The strength of social circles can have an effect on how well someone survives a break-up or loss. “It’s not so much about the quantity of people in social circles, as it is the quality,” said Sprecher, who added that studies show social isolation can contribute to a higher death rate than those who have strong, social circles.

There is hope for the broken-hearted, said Sprecher. “There is a measure of the ‘affective forecasting error,’ that in general says people will tend to think they will feel more strongly about an event than they actually do,” she said. Though many in a study thought they would be devastated by a break-up, “scholars followed up with subjects, and found some were not nearly as distraught as they thought,” she said.

No matter how distraught a heart may grow, Sprecher said the key to recovery is having a strong circle of others to keep us rooted. “People are resilient. As long as we have friends and family who can provide social support, it’s very likely your heart will not break.”

This article is reposted from a 2012 story in Report.