Broken Heart Syndrome

2878746453_a17791b9ee_zYou’ve probably read about a seemingly healthy person dying soon after the death of a spouse. While it may seem to be the stuff of romantic novels, it can actually happen. Scientists believe that intense emotions such as grief can shock your body into a fatal heart condition.

A study by researchers from St. George’s University of London that was published in the February 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that the chance of experiencing a stroke or heart attack after a partner’s death doubles within the first 30 days.

Broken Heart Syndrome, also known as “Takotsubo” or Japanese for “octopus pot” because the heart resembles a Japanese octopus trap when this condition is present, is a temporary condition in which the heart muscle becomes paralyzed and the left ventricle changes shape. Doctors use an angiogram to diagnose the problem. If there has been a heart attack, the image reveals one or more blocked arteries. With a “broken heart,” the arteries are not blocked, and there is that tell-tale shape.

6268429322_0dbe831d0a_zAlthough victims of this disorder usually recover, an acute episode can lead to cardiac arrest and even death. The symptoms, including chest pain and shortness of breath, mimic those of a heart attack. During a heart attack, the heart is cut off from its oxygen supply, either from a blockage or a spasm in in an artery. With Broken Heart syndrome, the problem is caused by a hormone surge that prevents the heart from pumping properly.

Most people who experience Broken Heart Syndrome are post-menopausal women, and doctors theorize the lack of estrogen is a contributing factor. However, the rare condition can affect anyone.

Twenty-nine-year-old British hairstylist Lindsay Clift, who died unexpectedly in 2012 just hours after her first child was delivered stillborn, is one example. Doctors believe her grief caused her to experience a huge adrenaline surge which led to cardiac arrest. Marcus Ringrose, 60, who died of heart failure not long after the funeral of his wife, actress Mary Tamm, is another example. Since Ringrose has no signs of heart disease, his sudden death was likely caused but stress-induced high levels of adrenaline.

An unexpected surprise such as winning the lottery or, in the case of one 60-year-old woman, a surprise birthday party can also trigger a severe heart-mind reaction. According to Dr. Sunil Shah, co-author of that St. George’s study, intense emotion can lead to changes in blood pressure, blood clotting and heart rate fluctuations.

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