You’ve seen it in movies or in the news: Sweethearts married for decades die within a few days of each other. People call it “broken heart syndrome,” and it’s real.
Losing a loved one can be emotionally devastating. It’s rare, but sometimes an overwhelming loss can affect physical health, including the heart too.
The heart has its mysteries, including the reason why it can suddenly grow weak due to physical or emotional stress.
It could be that a flood of the stress hormone adrenaline is too much for it to handle. One theory is that adrenaline causes the heart’s arteries to narrow so much that they cut off blood flow to the muscle.
Unlike a heart attack, broken heart syndrome makes part of your heart larger, temporarily. This can change how your ticker pumps, which causes the symptoms.
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Stress and Your Heart
Today, broken heart syndrome is well recognized even though the cause is not fully understood. We do know that increased adrenaline and the sympathetic nervous system surge that occurs with stress play an important role, we also see evidence that the central nervous system and endocrinology system are involved. But why broken heart syndrome occurs in some people and at sometimes, and not others, is not understood.
What kind of stress leads to broken heart syndrome? The medical literature and clinical experience shows that just about any stress can be the cause including:
- Medical procedures/illness
- Public speaking
- Surprise birthday party
- Cocaine use
- Dobutamine stress test
- Lightning strike
- Bad news
- Gambling losses
Though there’s a lot about broken heart syndrome that’s still a mystery, we do know more about who is prone to have it and what their prognosis is likely to be. Here are some interesting facts:
- About 90% of people with broken heart syndrome are women, most commonly in those who are post-menopausal, however the reported ages range from 10 to over 90 years.
- Recovery of heart function is necessary to make the diagnosis, but the time to recover can be variable, from hours to months.
- For those who have had broken heart syndrome, the risk of having it again is about 10%.
- Some experts recommend long term beta blockers to help prevent recurrence, however there is no evidence of its effectiveness.
- Broken heart syndrome can be lethal, however if the person survives the initial episode, their long-term prognosis is the same as if they never had it.
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Diagnosis and Care
At the hospital, you may get blood tests and an electrocardiogram (EKG). If it’s broken heart syndrome, those results will help confirm that it wasn’t a heart attack.
Imaging tests — a coronary angiogram, for example — would show that your organ’s lower left chamber is bigger than normal, and that your heart isn’t pumping the way it should.
Tell your doctor about your loss and your grief, too. This can help him figure out what’s going on.
Talk with your doctor about how you’ll need to take these medications.
Because your heart became weaker physically, you may be more likely to get heart failure or to have heart rhythm problems. Your doctor should talk about that with you and tell you and what follow-up care you’ll need.
Counseling can also help you with the grief or anxiety that brought on your symptoms.
In a few months, you should be past the heart problems.
After that, you’re not at any higher risk of a broken heart than anyone else. Thankfully, having this syndrome once doesn’t make you more likely to get it again.