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Can you really die of a broken heart?

February 12, 2020

Whether it’s through sappy songs on the radio, rom-coms at the theater, or hard-learned lessons about love, we’re all familiar with the concept of a broken heart. But did you know that the stressors related to a highly emotional experience – like heartbreak – can actually cause damage to your heart?

A pain by many other names…

While commonly referred to as broken heart syndrome, this condition actually goes by many other names including Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, stress-induced cardio myopathy, and atrial ballooning syndrome.

Dr. Amir Lotfi, a cardiologist in the Heart & Vascular Program at Baystate notes that, “Broken heart syndrome is a very curious condition. It only came to be recognized in the past 30 years so there’s still much to be learned about it. What we do know is that while it has the same symptoms of a heart attack — acute chest pain, shortness of breath, arm pain, and jaw pain — the cause is not a blockage or cardiovascular disease but rather a dysfunction of the heart muscle; specifically a weakening of the muscle.”

What causes broken heart syndrome?

Dr. Lotfi adds, “We have yet to determine exactly what causes the weakening but the most popular hypothesis is that there is an adrenal surge."

Adrenal surges, or rushes of adrenaline, are often brought on by situations that are unusually physical or emotional stressful.

"A physical stress might include a car accident or extremely heavy lifting that’s not part of the daily routine. An emotional stress, and the one you see most commonly written about in relation to this condition, is the sudden and unexpected loss of a spouse. But emotional stresses are not always tied to love and loss as evidenced by one patient I treated who experienced the syndrome after her hot water heater exploded.”

However, not all patients who experience broken heart syndrome can identify an event or stressor. In those cases, doctors look for other causes. While it is rare, there are case reports linking some medications, unprescribed stimulants, and underlying endocrine disorders with the condition.

Who is at risk of broken heart syndrome?

There a few known risk factors for broken heart syndrome. These include:

  • Gender: far more women (90%) than men are affected
  • Age: 80% of cases involve post-menopausal women age 50 and over

In addition, some research suggests that previous or current psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety or depression, can increase individual risk.

How do you treat broken heart syndrome?

At this point in time, there is no known medicine that can quickly heal a heart weakened by the syndrome. “Patients typically stay in the hospital for a few days for observation,” say Dr. Lotfi. Complete recovery usually occurs within one to three months. In some cases, beta blockers and anti-anxiety medication may be prescribed to control the release of stress hormones.

“In cases where it appears a stressful incident may have contributed to the patient’s condition, we’ll also look for ways to help them manage the stress and control their anxiety,” says Dr. Lotfi. “While this hasn’t been proven to help the heart, it has the potential to improve their quality of life which is also important.”

Can you get broken heart syndrome more than once?

In most cases (95%), patients do not have repeat episodes even after enduring other stressful events. In addition, there does not appear that you can pass the condition on to family members.

What do you do if you suspect broken heart syndrome?

“Without question, get to the ER,” advises Dr. Lotfi. “Only 5% of women who show up at the ER with symptoms of a heart attack actually have broken heart syndrome. Regardless of your situation or the stresses you’re enduring, it’s not worth risking damage to the heart, or your life, on the chance you might have broken heart syndrome.”

Read stories about heart & vascular patients at Baystate Health.