The hazards of a broken heart

February 14, 2002|By Gwinn Owens

THE CASCADE of Valentine hearts has been rolling into mailboxes all week, testament to one human being's love for another, perhaps from grandparents to grandchildren and vice versa, or between husbands and wives, or between young couples whose friendship is blossoming into romance.

This is absurd, says the literal thinker. The heart has nothing to do with affection. It is only a pump, though a vital pump, to be sure. The heart is not the seat of the emotions; that job belongs to the brain. The joy of love, the pain of unrequited love or the loneliness in love's loss, all are the product of a mental state, which in turn may be affected by exterior circumstance. Therefore, in the conventional wisdom, there is no such thing as a broken heart. The hearts of Valentine's Day ought to be replaced by pictures of brains.

The conventional wisdom is, surprisingly, wrong. The broken heart -- the heart that fails -- is not just a metaphor. Human beings are dying of broken hearts every day. This is one of the findings statistically and physiologically supported by the research of James J. Lynch, a Towson-based psychologist who has studied the origins of heart disease for many years. He wrote a best-selling book, The Broken Heart, in 1977, and more recently A Cry Unheard, on the medical consequences of loneliness.

Why does a human being die of a broken heart? Citing the multiple and accepted reasons for death, especially early death, Mr. Lynch points out that "loneliness not only kills us just as surely and effectively, but it's actually the secret cause of most premature death in America."

Much of this is traceable to lack of regular companionship and communication. "Dialogue is the elixir of life," he says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1998 studied death in relation to people never married, the widowed and the divorced. All have measurably shorter lives than married people, the never-married facing the highest risk, the widowed with less risk. The divorced (who were also married, perhaps unhappily) face a similar risk of early death. The disparity in death rates covers a range of diseases, but heart disease (i.e., a broken heart) is consistent with other major causes. The CDC study reaffirmed in even stronger terms the findings of a 1956 Johns Hopkins study.

How about those who suffer nonfatal heart attacks? Mending a broken heart is most successful -- that is, the years of survival are greater -- for those who are close to someone else, whom Mr. Lynch calls a "confidant." Those who go home to more than one confidant, presumably a family, survive the longest. Those with one confidant (perhaps just a spouse) do slightly less well, while those with no confidant at all (often unmarried and living alone) are at the greatest risk.

The obvious conclusion is that it takes love and companionship to mend a broken heart.

Though he deals in a realm with romantic connotations, Mr. Lynch's method is neither subjective nor romantic. He belongs to the school of objective, non-Freudian psychology, based strictly on what can be measured scientifically. His most important tool is a device that continuously measures the patient's heart rate and blood pressure through an extended period, usually in conversation.

He finds that individuals who live in convivial surroundings tend to talk easily. People who live in loneliness find talk stressful. Mr. Lynch observes that when conversations verge onto topics that arouse patients' fear or anger, their heart rates increase and their blood pressure surges, sometimes dangerously.

Thus, in terms of the loved and those who yearn to be loved, or the lonely who crave companionship, or the left-outs who want to be drawn into the circle, the Valentine heart is a symbol on one hand, yet deals with reality on the other.

Even if it says only, "I love you, Grandpa."

Gwinn Owens was an editorial writer for The Evening Sun and for seven years was its opinion page editor.

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