Broken Heart Syndrome Is Very Real

Losing a loved one can make you feel as if your heart is breaking—and sometimes it really is. Broken heart syndrome isn’t just Valentine’s Day hyperbole. It’s an actual medical condition, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy.

In broken heart syndrome, extreme stress brings on heart attack-like symptoms, such as chest pain and shortness of breath. This isn’t just an anxiety attack. The heart is actually in serious distress. At times, the person may experience irregular heartbeats or cardiogenic shock—a condition in which a suddenly weakened heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s demands. In rare cases, broken heart syndrome can even lead to death.

You couldn’t ask for a better example of the close link between mental health and heart health. Recently, I had a chance to chat with two experts about this little-known condition. Here’s what they told me.

Stress Overwhelms the Heart...

Broken heart syndrome is triggered by very severe stress. “That could be anything from the death of a loved one to the loss of a job,” says Malissa Wood, MD, co-director of the Corrigan Women's Heart Health Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“The syndrome is much more common in women than men,” adds Dr. Wood, who is a spokesperson for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign. She says it typically occurs in women during or after the menopausal transition.

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…And Sets Off a Chain Reaction

Doctors think that broken heart syndrome may be the heart’s reaction to a sudden surge in stress hormones. This sets off a dramatic chain of events:

  • Symptoms can mimic a heart attack. “You may have chest pain and shortness of breath,” says Dr. Wood. “Other possible symptoms include sudden onset of chest pressure, sweating, palpitations, and pain radiating from the jaw, back, or neck.”
  • Diagnostic tests show it isn’t a heart attack. Doctors may perform cardiac catheterization—a medical procedure that examines the inside of the heart's arteries using special X-rays called angiograms. “But we don’t find any plaque rupture or blood clots,” says Imran Arif, MD, an interventional cardiologist at the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center. In other words, unlike a heart attack, there’s no evidence of a blocked artery.
  • Imaging tests show a sick heart nonetheless. “When you do an echo—an ultrasound of the heart—the top of the heart is doing fine. In fact, it’s working overtime,” says Dr. Wood. “But the middle and tip look like a balloon. They’re bulging and not squeezing as they should.”

The good news: Most people with broken heart syndrome make a full recovery. “The condition starts improving within days, and within weeks to months the heart is usually back to normal,” Dr. Wood says. “Very few people are left with a permanent problem.”

Warning Signs of Heart Attack

Healthy Mind, Healthy Heart

“Clearly, there’s a link between a healthy mind and a healthy heart,” says Dr. Arif. “There are no guarantees that something like this won’t happen. But I think your heart benefits from good mental health and strong social support.”

Dr. Wood agrees: “Broken heart syndrome shows that there’s a pathway by which profound stress can make your heart sick. And if that pathway exists, it must go both ways, right? It makes sense that happiness, love, and other good feelings would have a positive effect on heart function.”

On the flip side, a mountain of evidence links chronic stress and depression with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to prevent or treat these conditions.

Not so fortunately, the onetime, extreme stressors that trigger broken heart syndrome—from catching a cheating spouse in the act to being in an auto accident—are often unavoidable. But starting out in good heart health can’t hurt and just might help with a faster recovery.

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A Deadly Serious Reminder

Dr. Wood has two words for anyone who develops symptoms of broken heart syndrome that don’t get better within a few minutes: “Call 911.” It might be a real heart attack. And even if it turns out to be broken heart syndrome, seeking immediate medical care is important.

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