“Broken heart” is a term that sounds purely metaphoric; something belonging in poetry or a Billy Ray Cyrus song, suggesting a howl-at-the-moon kind of pain from love gone wrong. But it turns out that the idea of a broken heart has a basis in science–the official medical terms are Takotsubo syndrome or stress cardiomyopathy. Over the past 15 years, the number of cases have been on the rise, reports The Journal of American Heart Association, with the vast majority of cases afflicting women over 50.
The condition appears similar to a heart attack, with symptoms such as chest pain and breathlessness. But the cause isn’t clogged arteries in these cases, but a temporary weakness in the heart muscle due to a surge in stress hormones. Death of a loved one or a divorce can certainly trigger this condition, which people normally recover from (though in rare cases is fatal). But other stressful scenarios can bring it on as well, such as a traffic accident or job loss. Let’s see, can we add a worldwide pandemic and four years of Trump to the list as well? We think so.
The condition can even occur after a good news, like winning the lottery, but it’s been too long since many of us have had that positive version of shock.
Achy, Breaky is Right
In the new study, researchers found that since 2006, an increasing number of Americans have been hospitalized for stress cardiomyopathy. The overwhelming majority—over 88 percent—have been women, with those aged 50 to 74 at greatest risk.
Broken heart syndrome may be misdiagnosed as a heart attack because the symptoms and test results are similar.
“It’s like a window of vulnerability,” senior researcher Dr. Susan Cheng, of the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles, told U.S. News and World Report. Researchers aren’t sure why women bear the brunt of stress cardiomyopathy, Cheng said, but menopause is thought to play a role.”It has something to do with those hormonal changes, but that’s not the whole story,” she said.
Broken heart syndrome is still fairly uncommon; there are between 15 and 30 cases for every 100,000 Americans each year, according to the American College of Cardiology. But the actual numbers could be higher, the college reports, because those with milder symptoms may not seek help.
The Breakdown on Broken Hearts
Broken heart syndrome may be misdiagnosed as a heart attack because the symptoms and test results are similar, the American Heart Association warns. In fact, tests show dramatic changes in rhythm and blood substances that are typical of a heart attack. But unlike a heart attack, there’s no evidence of blocked heart arteries.
In rare cases, people can develop heart failure or a life-threatening heart arrhythmia.
One theory put forth by Ilan Wittstein, a stress cardiomyopathy expert at Johns Hopkins University, is that the changes of menopause alter the nervous system in a way that puts some women at risk. During times of stress, the smaller blood vessels of the cardiovascular system constrict rather than dilate. Fortunately, Wittstein told U.S. News and World Report, in most cases the heart’s pumping ability fully recovers in one or two weeks. But in rare cases, people can develop heart failure or a life-threatening heart arrhythmia.
How do you prevent your heart from freaking out during the disturbing incidents that life tends to throw us into? Yoga, breathing, meditation, and other stress management mechanisms we’ve all heard about but may not practice as we should. The health of your heart may provide extra motivation. Oh, and it will also help to keep megalomaniacal politicians with fascist leanings out of government.