Can You Really Die of a Broken Heart?
Ray Smith
/ Categories: WELLNESS, 2023

Can You Really Die of a Broken Heart?

We’ve all heard the tale of long-married couples dying within weeks, or even days, of each other. While some lightheartedly suggest the second to pass died of a broken heart, there’s actually a good bit of science to back up the concept.

While not fully understood, broken heart syndrome is shorthand for Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a dysfunction of the heart muscle believed to be caused by an adrenal surge. Such surges are often brought on by unusually physical or emotional stressful situations, including the sudden and unexpected loss of a spouse. 

Patients experiencing Takotsubo cardiomyopathy frequently experience the same symptoms of a heart attack—acute chest pain, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, arm and/or jaw pain. But upon examination, there’s no blockage or signs of disease contributing to the symptoms or weakened muscles of the heart.

NOTE: If you experience acute chest pain, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, arm and/or jaw pain under any circumstances, you should seek medical attention immediately.

Given there’s no physical issue to resolve, treating broken heart syndrome can be challenging. Often patients are kept at the hospital for a few days for observation and prescribed beta blockers and ace inhibitors—the same medication used for heart failure, as well as anti-anxiety medication to control the release of stress hormones. Very often, the condition resolves on its own in a matter of weeks or months and the majority of patients do not experience a repeat episode even after other stressful events.

While anyone can experience broken heart syndrome, middle-aged women appear to be at the highest risk. In fact, the risk of developing the condition increases five times after the age of 55. While the exact reason for this is unknown, it’s believed to be related to falling estrogen levels associated with menopause. Normal estrogen levels protect the heart from the harmful effects of adrenaline surges. As levels drop, so does the level of protection. Other risk factors associated with the condition include a history of anxiety or depression. At this point in time, there’s no indication that the condition runs in families.

Because the symptoms of broken heart syndrome so closely resemble those of a heart attack, it’s important not to discount what you’re experiencing. If you experience acute chest pain, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, arm and/or jaw pain, seek medical attention immediately.

Scott Rogge, MD, is a board-certified cardiologist at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.


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