What is Broken Heart Syndrome?
It happens all the time in the movies: an older person clutches their chest in response to shocking news. Far from being merely a dramatic moment, this condition known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy (or in layman’s terms, broken heart syndrome) is very real. The condition, first described in the 1990s, made its way into the news when the actress Debbie Reynolds died just one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher in 2016.
(The unusual medical name came about because the Japanese clinician who described the condition noted that the bulging ventricle associated with the condition looks strikingly similar to a takotsubo, a specialized octopus-catching vessel.)
The symptoms of broken heart syndrome are chest pain and shortness of breath following an episode of severe physical or emotional stress, symptoms that mimic those of a heart attack. Even electrocardiogram readings from someone experiencing this condition look just like the readings of someone having a heart attack. The difference: people with broken heart syndrome have no coronary artery obstruction that can explain their symptoms, and recovery usually occurs within a month.
Interestingly, more than 90% of recorded cases of takotsubo cardiomyopathy occur in women ages 58 to 75 (Reynolds was 84 at the time of her death), and approximately 5% of women assessed for a heart attack actually turn out to have takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
Although it is not certain exactly what causes broken heart syndrome, it is thought that stress hormones such as adrenaline are released in such quantity during severe stress that they essentially shock the heart, preventing it from contracting properly.
What type of stress can cause takotsubo cardiomyopathy? The list includes the most common physical and psychological stressors: severe pain, violence, an accident, receiving unexpected bad news, intense fear, and any big surprise, even a pleasant one such as a surprise party.
There are no official guidelines for treating the condition, and although heart failure occurs in approximately 20% of those who suffer from broken heart syndrome, death from the condition is rare.
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