While most of us understand that being left by a loved one can leave you devastated, it turns out a broken heart can actually cause your heart to malfunction. Recently, scientists have uncovered why people are more likely to die following the death of their partner. The Medical Station is here to explain what we know, so far, about this phenomenon and how a broken heart can even kill you.
Broken Heart Syndrome
Broken Heart Syndrome is also known as Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy and Stress Cardiomyopathy. It is described by the American Heart Association as when “part of the heart enlarges temporarily and starts pumping irregularly” and is most commonly associated with sudden pain or death following the passing of one’s spouse. The most common symptoms of Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy include shortness of breath, angina (chest pain) and low blood pressure. In the majority of cases it is not fatal. In more severe cases it can cause cardiogenic shock, which means that the organs aren’t being supplied with enough blood to function and this can be fatal.
Who Suffers from Broken Heart Syndrome?
As stated above, Broken Heart Syndrome is most commonly associated with the death of a partner. But, it can be a consequence of any severely stressful event including a break up. It can even occur due to positive stresses such as winning the lottery. Post-menopausal women are the most likely to suffer from Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy although it is unclear why.
How is it Different from a Heart Attack?
Broken Heart Syndrome has similar symptoms and is often misdiagnosed as a heart attack. But, there are some important differences between the two. A heart attack, more technically known as a myocardial infarction, is caused by a blockage of the coronary arteries which stops the supply of blood to the heart. People who suffer from Broken Heart Syndrome won’t have severely blocked coronary arteries, which can be identified through medical tests. Tests such as an EKG or blood test can also reveal differences between the two kinds of cardiac events. Finally, in Broken Heart Syndrome the heart muscle cells do not die as they do in a heart attack and therefore there is a much shorter recovery time (days as opposed to weeks or months).
How Does it Happen?
While it is not yet completely clear why stress cardiomyopathy occurs, the most widely accepted hypothesis is that a surge in the stress hormone Norepinephrine causes the heart to malfunction. However, we know that this can’t be the whole story since a class of medications called Beta Blockers, which block the activity of Norepinephrine, do not prevent Broken Heart Syndrome. The hormonal surge is said to reversibly “stun” the chamber of the heart responsible for pumping blood to the body, the left ventricle. Since this part of the heart becomes stunned, it does not contract properly to push blood out of the heart, causing the symptoms described earlier.
If you believe you are suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome or are experiencing chest pain, go to your nearest emergency room. Also, feel free to contact The Medical Station and book an appointment with our Social Worker if you are grieving the loss of a loved one and would like to speak with someone
This article was written by Hailey Adler, one of our Summer Administrative Interns. Hailey received a BSc. from the University of Guelph and is attending Queen’s University for a Masters of Anatomical Sciences. She is passionate about all things medical related as well as nutrition and cancer research.