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Broken Heart Syndrome Can Kill You

What it is and How You can Avoid it

 By Ira Woods

Grief can break someone's heart

Broken heart syndrome, it’s the stuff of folk legends isn’t it?

There was one touching story recently in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about a couple who’d been together 66 years and died within hours of each other. It’s great material for a compelling story, but hardly seems to be based in science.  Or is it? It turns out that researchers have invested a good deal of time exploring broken heart syndrome; and it’s a very real condition with very real symptoms, consequences, and treatments.

What is Broken Heart Syndrome?

First recognized by Japanese researchers in 1990, Broken Heart Syndrome is a condition that causes the left ventricle of the heart to balloon into a shape similar to that of a pot Japanese fishermen use for catching octopus, a Tako tsubo; which gave it the name Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy.

The term Broken Heart Syndrome ("BHS") was first coined in a 1998 publication of Circulation, from the case study of a women who suddenly developed a heart condition and symptoms similar to a heart attack, following the death of her spouse of 45 years. This ballooning and weakening of the left ventricle is usually the result of a severe shock or trauma such as extreme physical or emotional stress, a sudden illness, unexpected surgery or an accident, the loss of a loved one, or a natural disaster such as an earthquake or tsunami - which is why it’s also called stress cardiomyopathy.

Those who are most vulnerable to BHS will experience symptoms within the first 24 hours of extreme shock, trauma or sudden emotional stress.  And while the exact cause of BHS is still unclear, researchers believe that following the experience of shock or trauma, the body releases a flood of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, which effectively stuns the heart, causing it to pump much faster and preventing the proper contraction of the ventricle.

The Minneapolis Heart Institute has been studying Broken Heart Syndrome since 2001 and of the 350 patients they’ve seen, 90 percent are women.  Harvard Health reports that of that 90 percent of women experiencing BHS, the average age is between 58 – 75.

Often Mistaken for a Heart Attack 

The symptoms of Broken Heart Syndrome are very similar to that of a heart attack including chest pain, shortness of breath, and a rapid heartbeat.  The American Heart journal gives this partial list of stressors that can contribute to Broken Heart Syndrome:

  • sudden drop in blood pressure
  • serious illness or unexpected surgery
  • severe pain
  • domestic violence
  • asthma attacks
  • receiving bad news
  • loss of a loved one; family, friend, or pet
  • a fierce argument
  • financial loss
  • a sudden surprise
  • an accident, car or otherwise

Treatment

If your doctor suspects Broken Heart Syndrome, they may perform a number of tests such as a physical exam, an ECG, a chest X-ray, or a coronary angiogram. Treatment for BHS is similar to that as for a heart attack; medicines such as beta blockers, ACE inhibitors and diuretics may be prescribed for the condition and recovery can often occur within a month or two.

It’s also very important to alleviate physical or emotional stress.  The Institute of HeartMath® has shown that negative emotions such as rage or deep frustration can trigger chaotic heart patterns while positive emotions such as appreciation or gratitude can produce a stable heart rhythm.  HeartMath® has developed three core techniques to consciously shift from negative emotions to positive emotions in order to reverse the effects of emotional stress.  These techniques, and other heart healthy resources, can be found on the PBS.org website at their Body and Soul Program location.

Broken Heart Syndrome is a very real condition, but it doesn’t need to be fatal.  By recognizing the risk factors and symptoms, consulting with your doctor, and learning how to effectively handle stress, you’ll greatly improve your chances of not falling victim to a broken heart.  

Ira Woods is the president and founder of OneWorld Memorials. He had become the primary caregiver for his wife who discovered she had cancer in 2009. His experience caregiving and then losing someone he deeply loved caused him to reach out and encourage others to prepare for this eventuality through writing and speaking.

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