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Can you really be scared to death? And other weird ways that may invite Death home

It’s common to hear of someone dying of a broken heart, or being scared to death, common as in just kidding or pure jest…right? Well, maybe not.

According to an article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, there have been cases documented of people actually dying from strong emotions.

Some of the examples include Roman emperor Nerva (A.D. 30-98), who died due to a fit of anger directed at some senator who offended him; a 13th century pope (Innocent IV) was said to have died of grief when his army was overthrown, and it was also told that some American patriots died of sheer happiness after finding out that General Cornwallis’s men had been defeated (more like creamed) at Yorktown.

G. L. Engel, author of the study, also gathered 170 recent accounts of death due to life disturbing events like the death of someone close, threat of injury or death, death upon reuniting with someone long lost, grief, death by mourning or on an anniversary, happy endings…etc.


AOL News reported that an article titled “The Brain-Heart Connection” may explain some of the more likely, or actual, physical causes of why strong emotions can result in death. The article basically says that any strong emotion can possibly lead to a heart attack, which, in turn, can possibly lead to death… (Well, duh.)

Okay, so those were some pretty old examples up there, ones that can’t really be verified. Let’s dig a littler further into the science behind some of these crazy claims.

Can You Die of…

A Broken Heart?

The book points out that acute stress can cause heart failure, and a broken heart may actually be enough to cause that.

The book also points out that some people under stress already have heart disease, so if their stress caused heart failure is not really known. There is another syndrome called acute stress cardiomyopathy, which acts like a heart attack but isn’t, and is caused by stressful events. Common emotional triggers fro this are grief (death of a loved one, for example) or fear (being raped, robbed, mugged, in a bad car accident).

Being Scared Stiff?

Catatonia is a form of paralysis that has no readily apparent physical cause and is known in the psychiatric world well as being caused by fear.

Back in the caveman days (no offense to those cute, hairy Geico ad men), as a 2004 study suggests (reported by AOL News), this reaction was designed to protect us from being food for other hungry animals. Now, other forms of fears and set it off, such as anxiety or feelings of “imminent doom, real of imagined.”

From Killer Plants?

Believe it or not, castor beans, where castor oil comes from, contain so much ricin that a single bean could kill a grown man.

Also, the pits of cherries, plums and peaches contain good amounts of cyanide. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has deemed sunflowers “slightly toxic,” but you’d really have to stuff your face, something like a chipmunk in spring, to do any real damage.

Then there’s that deliciously lovely (hah) rhubarb pie. If it’s made with the stems, the pie might come close to being called tolerable, tasty to those with no taste buds, but the leaves contain many toxins. You’d have to eat 10 pounds to die from them, however, and who likes rhubarb that much? I’m not really worried about this one.

The Leading Cause of Death in…

15 to 24 Year Olds

#1) Car accident. In fact, you’re more likely at this age to die from that than anything else.
#2) Murder.
#3) “Other” accidents. (Includes wetting the bed…)
#4) Suicide.
#5) Cancer. (Tanning beds and too many spring break trips to Cancun, most likely.)

25 to 45 Year Olds

#1) Car accident. (And you thought you escaped after age 24.)
#2) Cancer.
#3) Heart disease.
#4) Suicide. (If this toilet economy gets any worse, this one is surely to move up a spot or three.)
#5) Murder.
#6) HIV. (Bet you weren’t expecting that one. Pretty scary.)

45 to 64 Year Olds

#1) Cancer.
#2) Heart disease.
#3) Car accident. (And I thought getting older meant you become worse as a driver..?)

65 and Beyond

#1) Heart disease.
#2) Cancer.
#3) Cerebrovascular disease. (As taken from iVillage Health: Cerebrovascular disease is any disorder that affects the disease in the blood vessels that feed oxygen-rich blood to the face and brain. Most often, this term is used to describe “hardening” (atherosclerosis) of the carotid arteries, which supply the brain with blood. It’s also what Walter Cronkite had.)
#4) Chronic lung disease.
#5) Alzheimer’s.
#6) Pneumonia.
#7) Diabetes.
#8) Car accident.

Man, that last one’s just full of disease…jeez. I’m just not going to get old. I’ll take my chances with the car accidents and suicide.

**This is an adapted excerpt from “The Medicine Cabinet of Curiosities: An Unconventional Compendium of Health Facts and Oddities, From Asthmatic Mice to Plants That Can Kill” by Nicholas Bakalar. Copyright © 2009 by Nicholas Bakalar. Reprinted by arrangement with Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company LLC.**

1 comment so far

I’ve heard of people being scared so badly their hair turns white… interesting article ! 🙂

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