Can you die from a broken heart? Researchers and heart experts suggest that broken heart syndrome is a real thing. A broken heart can do more than just cause emotional distress – it can actually compromise your heart health and cause real heart problems. In fact, a broken heart brought on by an emotional stressor such as the death of a loved one or the discovery of a partner’s infidelity can affect your heart health in a plethora of ways and may even contribute to early death.
Broken heart syndrome is also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy and can occur in both healthy and unhealthy individuals. It is triggered by an emotional stressor and is often misdiagnosed as a heart attack.
If left untreated, broken heart syndrome can result in short-term heart muscle failure, but if caught in time, it can be well treated without leaving permanent damage.
What causes broken heart syndrome?
Although broken heart syndrome is most often caused by an outside event or mental stressor, it has a real and physical impact on your heart health. The exact cause of broken heart syndrome is unknown. However, preliminary research suggests that it is caused (at least in part) by a surge of stress hormones. More specifically, the stress of a broken heart causes a sudden surge of hormones such as adrenaline to flood your body and to temporarily weaken your heart. This influx of hormones also causes a part of your heart to temporarily enlarge, reducing the ability of that specific part of your heart to pump properly.
The rest of your heart either functions normally or responds by pumping with forceful contractions. The stress hormones may also contribute to heart problems by causing the heart’s arteries to temporarily constrict.
Complications and risk factors of broken heart syndrome
It is estimated that one to two percent of patients who are diagnosed with heart attacks are actually suffering from broken heart syndrome. Women are much more prone to experiencing heart problems due to a broken heart than men, with 90 to 95 percent of all patients being female. Age is also a factor, as the majority of patients are over 50. Broken heart syndrome is more common among post-menopausal women. The exact reason for this is unknown – however, it is likely due to hormonal differences caused by menopause.
Complications of broken heart syndrome include buildup of fluid in your lungs, low blood pressure, disruptions in heartbeat, and heart failure.
Broken heart syndrome symptoms
According to Mayo Clinic, broken heart syndrome can cause symptoms which are similar to those experienced during a heart attack and stroke. The most common include sudden and intense chest pain, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, and feelings of weakness.
Diagnosing broken heart syndrome
Doctors will consider a number of tools to determine if you have broken heart syndrome. A test or a combination of the tests listed below can be used to diagnose the problem.
- Physical exam and personal history review
- Electrocardiogram (ECG) to record electrical impulses that make your heartbeat
- Echocardiogram, which is a special ultrasound of the chest showing detailed images of the heart’s structure and function
- Blood tests, which may reveal an increase in certain enzymes linked to broken heart syndrome
- Chest X-ray to see if the heart is enlarged
- Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (cardiac MRI), providing detailed images of the heart
- Coronary angiogram, which is a special X-ray using dye injected into the blood vessels of the heart.
The good news is, most people who suffer from broken heart syndrome and are properly treated, recover within a month or so. Without treatment, though, there can be some life-threatening complications.
How broken heart syndrome can be treated?
There is no standard treatment for broken heart syndrome, so your doctor will recommend one based on your unique situation. Treatment may be similar to that of a heart attack if diagnosis is unclear. Broken heart syndrome treatment could include medicines to relieve fluid buildup, treat blood pressure, or manage stress hormones.
These medications are typically stopped once the doctor is assured that the heart is back to functioning normally. If it is determined that stressful events coincide with the broken heart episodes, some doctors will prescribe anti-anxiety medications or provide other suggestions for managing stress.
Treatment is often effective within a month’s time. Your doctor will advise if you need to continue on your medications or make any necessary changes to your treatment plan.
Common procedures that treat heart attack are not effective in broken heart syndrome as their goal is to unclog arteries.
Along with medical treatments, patients with broken heart syndrome should adhere to a healthy lifestyle as much as possible, along with undergoing counseling or therapy to deal with the emotional stressor.
Preventing broken heart syndrome
Heart specialists have reported that the risk of having a repeat episode of broken heart syndrome is low. It does help to maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes exercising, eating nutritional foods, and avoiding tobacco.
Relaxation therapy to deal with emotional stress that may have contributed to a broken heart syndrome episode is believed to be a very good way to prevent further problems. Exercises such as tai chi, yoga, and meditation are often recommended to those who have had broken heart syndrome/stress cardiomyopathy.
It is also important to get regular physical checkups, as well as surround yourself with supportive people.
The relationship between stress and illness can be complicated, especially when we consider that some people are more susceptible to stress than others. Genetics, personality, social support, and coping style are all factors that help determine how our bodies deal with stress.
Some studies suggest that low-level, short-term stress can actually boost the immune system, but high level of chronic stress can lead to illness. Episodes of broken heart syndrome can follow a variety of emotional stressors such as loss of a loved one, fear, extreme anger, and even surprise. It is worth noting that physical stressors such as a stroke or difficulty breathing due to asthma or emphysema can lead to a broken heart episode.
It can be comforting for people to know that their odds of quick recovery from broken heart syndrome/stress cardiomyopathy are very good and that broken heart syndrome causes continue to be the subject of a lot of research.
Related: How to treat ischemic cardiomyopathy? Causes, symptoms, and prognosis