What is Broken Heart Syndrome?

on January 11 2012 9:18 AM
Broken Heart Syndrome
What is Broken Heart Syndrome? Broken heart syndrome is not something that exists only in fairytales. You can, in fact, die from a broken heart. Flickr via Creative Commons

Broken heart syndrome is not something that exists only in fairytales. You can, in fact, die from a broken heart.

Technically, broken heart syndrome is classified as takotsubo. In a study published Monday in the American Heart Association's journal circulation, scientists found that grieving for a loved one can, well, break your heart. The new study shows that individuals grieving the death of a loved one have a 20 percent increased risk for a heart attack, reports ABC News.

In the early 1990s, researchers interviewed approximately 2,000 people hospitalized due to a heart attack. Of those 2,000, 270 reported that they had lost a parent, sibling, spouse, friend or other loved one six months before their heart attack; and about 20 people had suffered a loss of a loved one within the past day.

The researchers calculated a risk of a heart attack was 21 time higher within the first day of a loss and six times higher within a week. Lead author Elizabeth Mostofsky was surprised at the results. The risk was high not only the following day, but also remains high for quite some time, Mostofsky said.

Broken heart syndrome is more common amongst older women, but the latest study included mostly younger men. Dr. Cindy Grines, vice president of academic and clinical affairs at the Detroit Medical Center Cardiovascular Institute, said many of the men in the study had typical causes of heart attack, like blood clots in their arteries.

But, Dr. Grines said she does not doubt many of their heart attacks could have been related to grief. I have had several patients come in with heart attacks shortly after the death of a spouse, Grines said, such as a 38-year-old man who reported chest pains after witnessing his wife die. He delayed treatment to make funeral arrangements. If he had been seen early, started on aspirin and other medications, this clot would not have become so large, Grines said.

Broken heart syndrome might be more common amongst grief-stricken people who stop taking medications, delay treatments or ignore heart attack warning signs after a loved one dies.

Although they may be experiencing the symptoms of loss, they shouldn't attribute symptoms to stress alone, Mostofsky said. They should take this seriously and realize these could be symptoms of a heart attack and they should seek care.

Scientists believe emotional stress boosts levels of stress hormones and other factors increase heart rate, blood pressure and blood clotting, putting the heart at risk.

Although broken heart syndrome is quite rare, Dr. Clyde Yancy, chief of cardiology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said doctors should consider it when treating heart attack sufferers. It is sufficiently common that practitioners should be sensitized to its likelihood, Yancy said. We should not miss those treatment opportunities as a means of preventing this clustering of events.

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