Is a Broken Heart a Real Medical Event?

ByABC News
February 9, 2005, 10:43 AM

Feb. 10, 2005 — -- Is there really such a thing as a broken heart?

A study published today in the "New England Journal of Medicine" suggests there may be. The article claims that an emotionally stressful situation, such as a loved one's unexpected death, may actually cause the symptoms of heart failure in some people.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore examined 19 individuals with no prior medical problems who showed symptoms of stress cardiomyopathy -- chest pain, difficulty breathing or low blood pressure -- following a stressful event.

A series of exams, including blood tests and angiograms, revealed that all of the subjects had a severe dysfunction of the left side of the heart. The same tests performed two to four weeks later, however, indicated that these defects had completely resolved.

The investigators noticed that these individuals had abnormally high levels of stress hormones, which can be toxic to the heart muscle. They hypothesized that this temporary weakening of the heart muscle may be triggered by the stress hormones.

The lead author of the study, Dr. Ilan Wittstein, notes that although the "potentially lethal consequences of emotional stress are rooted in folk wisdom, as reflected by phrases such as 'scared to death,'" the study gives credibility to the idea of a real-life broken heart.

Reversible heart damage seen in times of emotional stress is not nearly as common as a true heart attack, which results in permanent damage to heart muscle. But the phenomenon is real, and it hadn't been formally recognized by any American studies until Wittstein and his colleagues described it.

Dr. William Abraham, chief of cardiovascular medicine at Ohio State University in Columbus, said the theory about stress hormones "is a biologically plausible explanation for unexplained heart failure in previously healthy people."

The phenomenon of stress-related heart problems is not a new matter, but it has perhaps been under-recognized until now.