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Sharp Health News

Can you die of a broken heart?

Feb. 14, 2017

Can you die of a broken heart?

Anyone who's suffered a traumatic loss understands the emotional toll that grief can take. Doctors say it can also be dangerous for your heart.

"Broken-heart syndrome" is a real medical condition that can develop after a stressful event, such as a breakup, serious accident or loved one's death. When the condition strikes, the body releases a surge of stress hormones that stun the left ventricle, which can no longer pump enough blood to the rest of the body.

In very rare cases, the condition can be fatal. The death of actress Debbie Reynolds in late 2016 — just one day after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher — had many wondering whether broken-heart syndrome was to blame.

"We don't fully understand how stress and grief affect the body, but this is a very real syndrome," says Dr. Hirsch Mehta, a cardiologist affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital.

People with broken-heart syndrome, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy, often think they're having a heart attack, Dr. Mehta says. Following a traumatic or emotional event — even a happy one like winning the lottery — they experience chest pain, sweating and shortness of breath. They can also suffer palpitations, nausea and vomiting.

"Our initial tests will show that some kind of cardiac event is happening, but there are no blocked arteries as you'd see in a heart attack," Dr. Mehta says.

Japanese researchers first described the condition in 1990. They called it takotsubo cardiomyopathy — takotsubo means "octopus pot" in Japanese — because on X-rays the left ventricle of patients with the syndrome looks like the shape of a Japanese octopus trap. A study in the American Journal of Cardiology found that 6,230 cases were reported in the United States in 2012.

Broken-heart syndrome can strike anyone, even those in good health with no previous heart problems. Women ages 55 and older are much more likely to experience the condition. Researchers think older women may be more vulnerable because they have lower levels of estrogen in their bodies following menopause.

Patients can be treated with medication and lifestyle changes. For most, their hearts go back to normal within weeks.

However, anyone who thinks they are experiencing a heart attack should seek medical attention immediately, Dr. Mehta says.

For the news media: To speak with Dr. Mehta about broken-heart syndrome for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at erica.carlson@sharp.com.

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