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Sharp Health News

Can you die of a broken heart?

Feb. 24, 2022

Can you die of a broken heart?

Anyone who’s suffered a traumatic loss — or experienced intense stress — understands the toll that grief and emotional strain can take. Doctors say both can also be dangerous for your heart, and for some people during the pandemic — especially women — they became life-threatening.

“Broken-heart syndrome,” also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy, is a real medical condition that can develop after a stressful event — a breakup, serious accident or loved one’s death — or intense emotional stress, such as living through a pandemic. And according to a study published in JAMA Network Open, there was a significant increase in the incidence of stress-induced cardiomyopathy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While none of the study participants had COVID-19, researchers believe pandemic-related stressors contributed. Living through a pandemic is generally stressful, but added challenges, such as financial worries, increased responsibilities at home, isolation, illness, and loss of loved ones, may have led to the surge in stress-induced heart issues.

How stress affect the body
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, it can be fatal.

“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 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 have 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.

A particular issue for women over 55
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.

Broken-heart syndrome can strike anyone, even those in good health with no previous heart problems. However, women age 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 may be 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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