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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.


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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:

  • A traumatic romantic breakup

  • The shock of a surprise party

  • The death of a loved one

  • Being in a car accident

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.

Oh No!

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 happens.

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 attacks

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.


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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' time.

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 to control.

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.


Washington Post February 10, 2005

Philadelphia Enquirer May 2, 2004

Canadian Press Feb. 9, 2005

The Reveille February 15, 2005

ABC News February 9, 2005

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