FRIDAY, July 6, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- A 50-year-old woman's near-death experience at her sister-in-law's grave is providing insight into how stress can suddenly kill people by shutting down their hearts.
The unidentified woman, whose case was described in a new report, suffered an electrical short-circuit that would have caused cardiac arrest if she hadn't had a defibrillator in her chest. The device recorded the exact time, and her doctor later discovered that she suffered an attack as her brother's wife was being buried.
"It tells us that a person's emotional state, operating at a subconscious level, can interact in someone with serious heart disease to trigger a cardiac event," said Dr. Michael Sweeney, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He wrote about the case in the July 2007 edition of the journal HeartRhythm.
The woman's brush with death could have been coincidental. But it came exactly a week after her father's unexpected death; the sister-in-law collapsed and died the same day after hearing that her father-in-law had died.
Doctors have spent centuries trying to understand why some people die when hit with sudden devastating news or on the anniversary of a stressful event, Sweeney said. According to him, psychiatrists have studied the phenomenon for a century.
However, he said, "for the most part, the medical community discounts the notion of a human being dying of a broken heart."
The case of the bereaved woman is unusual, because the defibrillator was there to help stabilize her heart at the exact moment it began to malfunction. The woman's defibrillator, which is designed to shock the heart into a normal rhythm, is the same kind implanted in the chest of Vice President Dick Cheney, noted Sweeney, who is also an electrophysiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston.
The woman had the defibrillator implant for about six months, and it had never activated other than that one time. Since the jolt is fairly minor, she didn't realize she'd been shocked until a few weeks later, when Sweeney checked the defibrillator and was able to determine the exact moment when it went off.
The women then thought back to what she was doing that day in March 2005, at that time, and realized she was at her sister-in-law's funeral. According to Sweeney, she is still alive and doing well.
"One of the take-home messages is that better technology is allowing us to draw closer and closer to an understanding about how a stressor would affect the heart," said Samuel Sears, professor of psychology and internal medicine at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.
Referring to a case in which a man died after bowling a perfect 300 score, he said negative emotions aren't the only kinds that can lead to trouble.
Sears suspects that adrenalin plays a major role in the deaths. He added that victims may be killed when bits of debris within arteries known as plaque sheer off and form fatal blockages.
Still, it's important to keep the report in perspective, said Thomas Kamarck, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.
"Sudden cardiac death in the absence of pre-existing cardiac disease is rather unusual," he said. "Managing one's stress is important, but it is important not to lose focus on the powerful behaviors that contribute to the underlying plaque, such as smoking, overeating, and sedentary behavior."
Learn more about sudden cardiac death from the American Heart Association.