When a Heart Literally Breaks

elegant woman dressed in black hiding with umbrella
iStock

Grief, heartbreak, or other severe emotional distress can be devastating. But can a broken heart actually kill you? The answer might be yes.

One unfortunate 61 year old suffered this condition called Takotsugo cardiomyopathy, colloquially known as Broken Heart Syndrome. Following the death of a beloved dog, which added to existing stress, the woman was admitted to the ER with severe chest pains. Scans revealed that she was not suffering from more typical cardiac distress. Takotsugo cardiomyopath mostly affects older women. It is usually triggered by a severe emotional shock such as the death of a loved one, but can also occur as a result of physical trauma such as surgery. Any kind of stressful situation can increase one’s risk of developing the condition. For example, incidences spiked after a 2004 earthquake in Japan.

The greater risks stem from unhealthy behaviors adopted after a traumatic event.

The condition is characterized by a vase-shaped bulge in the left ventricle that some say is reminiscent of octopus traps (Takotsugo translates to “octopus trap” in Japanese). Most tellingly, no prior history of obstructed arteries or other heart disease risks are necessary, the condition can strike completely healthy people out of the blue. On rare occasions, Broken Heart Syndrome can lead to severe, even life-threatening complications.

The good news is that the condition usually reverses itself after a reasonable period of time, although sometimes underlying emotional trauma must be treated. The bad news is that Broken Heart Syndrome is not the only danger from grief. Researchers in Sweden, for example, examined how the death of a child affected the parents and the results are not good. Most investigations, though not all, showed that bereaved parents suffered more frequently from a variety of ailments including depression, suicide, heart disease, even cancer and diabetes. Untimely death of a child, such as from an accident or suicide, had the strongest effects, helping to rule out inherited genetic conditions that might affect parent and child alike. The risk persisted when either adult children or younger children were lost. The effects may last for the rest of a parent’s life.

In many cases the greater risks stem from unhealthy behaviors adopted after a traumatic event, such as increased drinking, poor diet, and reduced exercise. Those suffering a severe emotional shock therefore face acute physical risks from Broken Heart Syndrome, and both acute and long-term risks from psychological impacts. There is no easy response to grief, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to figure it out.


JSTOR Citations

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy: An important differential diagnosis in patients with acute chest pain

By: F Cuculi, C C S Lim and A P Banning

BMJ: British Medical Journal, Vol. 340, No. 7756 (22 May 2010), pp. 1095-1096

BMJ

Mortality in parents following the death of a child: a nationwide follow-up study from Sweden

By: Mikael Rostila, Jan Saarela and Ichiro Kawachi

Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (1979-), Vol. 66, No. 10 (October2012), pp. 927-933

BMJ

James MacDonald

James MacDonald received a BS in Environmental Biology from Columbia and a PhD in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers University, spending 4 years in Central America collecting data on fish in mangrove forests. His research has been published in scholarly journals such as Estuaries and Coasts and Biological Invasions. He currently works in fisheries management and outreach in New York.

Comments are closed.