It’s hard to imagine someone getting to adulthood without experiencing the pain of a broken heart. It’s all part of living life and forming relationships.
I remember the girl in high school who said, “I don’t think so” when I called to ask her to the movies. Then there was that high school dance when I’d finally gotten the courage up to ask a special girl to dance only to spot her across the room dancing with the guy who would become her boyfriend.
As painful as these experiences were, with a little bit of time, I got over them. Most people do. But on this Valentine’s Day, I wanted to answer a question I’ve been asked: Is it really possible to die from broken heart?
Unfortunately, it is.
There is actually something called broken heart syndrome, the name for sudden heart failure that comes on after emotional trauma. It was first recognized by Japanese doctors in the 1990s who named it takotsubo cardiomyopathy after noting a resemblance between a Japanese octopus trap, a takotsubo, and the shape of the affected heart on X-ray.
Fortunately, the condition is quite rare. It’s almost exclusively seen in postmenopausal women. And while the symptoms are similar to a heart attack — 1 to 2 percent of people who are diagnosed with a heart attack are really suffering from the broken heart syndrome — what’s happening to the heart is quite different.
During a heart attack, the heart muscle is cut off from its supply of oxygen, either from a blockage or a spasm in one of the arteries that supplies blood. Broken heart syndrome, on the other hand, is thought to stem from a surge of hormones that impairs the ability of the heart muscle to pump.
Many stressors can trigger the syndrome, according to a 2005 study by Johns Hopkins Hospital researchers published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Some stressors were related to sadness, but not all. Indeed, one person was struck down after being startled by their own surprise birthday party!
It’s unclear why middle-aged women are at the greatest risk. One possibility relates to differences in hormone levels. If you think you are having a heart attack after emotional stress, call 911, and keep broken heart syndrome in mind as a possibility. Your doctor will be able to do the evaluation to tell the difference.
The good news is that unlike a heart attack, broken heart syndrome is rarely fatal and most people make a full recovery. What can you do to prevent it? You could stay at home, avoiding anything that might cause sudden excitement. You could guard yourself from situations that might one day lead to emotional pain, like being in love. But what a dull life that would be!
Dr. Richard Besser is ABC News’ chief health and medical editor.