You Really Can Die From a Broken Heart
While the idea of dying from a broken heart may strike some as nothing
more than folklore -- Shakespearian even -- research has proven the reality
of such an occurrence.
When people encounter certain distressing situations, a flood of stress
hormones are unleashed, taking a drastic toll on the heart and causing
sudden life-threatening heart spasms in otherwise healthy people. Such
situations may include:
One woman experienced sudden, intense chest pain after giving an emotional
talk about her son's battle with mental illness. After being rushed
to the hospital and treated for what doctors believed was a heart attack,
it was discovered the woman had instead experienced an unusual heart malfunction ... otherwise
referred to as broken heart syndrome.
Suffering from broken heart syndrome, technically known as stress
cardiomyopathy, may not only occur in light of a negative event.
In one reported case, a woman was rushed to the hospital after being
startled at her surprise birthday party.
How Does Broken Heart Syndrome Occur?
For centuries, doctors have understood that emotional shocks, similar
to those listed above, can trigger heart attacks and sudden deaths. Yet
broken heart syndrome, technically known as stress cardiomyopathy (myopathy
meaning disease), is an unusual phenomenon; no one really knows why it
In one study, researchers analyzed 19 patients who had what appeared
to be traditional heart attacks after experiencing sudden emotional stress.
All but one were women; most were post-menopausal. (It was learned that
women are more vulnerable to suffer from a broken heart, as the occurrence
may be correlated with hormones or how women's brains are wired to
their hearts.) When researchers compared the 19 patients with other people
who had experienced classic heart attacks, it was discovered:
The patients had healthy, unclogged arteries
The levels of stress hormones in their blood, such as adrenalin,
were two to three times higher than those suffering from classic heart
Researchers suspect high amounts of stress hormones go straight to the
heart and produce a startle of the heart muscle that causes a temporary
dysfunction. Instead of killing the heart muscle like a heart attack would,
it simply renders it helpless.
An additional explanation as to how people suffer from broken heart syndrome
is that grief kicks the body's "fight or flight" response into
overdrive. Instead of fleeing, however, the body is placed in a state
of prolonged activation, completely void of direction or outlet or purpose.
Therefore, this prolonged stressed response takes its toll on the cardiovascular
system, causing heart attack-like symptoms.
Researchers underscore the importance of calming down and learning
to effectively cope with stress as a way of protecting one's heart
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Unlike heart attacks, those suffering from broken heart syndrome begin
recovery within a few days and are completely recovered within two weeks'
Can You Prevent Broken Heart Syndrome?
Some researchers believe understanding how broken heart syndrome occurs
will allow people to successfully cope with stress and protect their heart
heath. Yet opposing researchers note the abrupt and unforeseeable nature
of the stress suggests the condition may not be something people can learn
For victims recovering from a broken heart, it is suggested they make
sure to rest and drink plenty of fluids. Other preventative methods include
exercise (in order to keep the heart and mind healthy) as well as learning
to effectively cope with stress.
Post February 10, 2005
Philadelphia Enquirer May 2, 2004
Canadian Press Feb. 9, 2005
The Reveille February 15, 2005
ABC News February 9, 2005