Broken Heart: Rare Syndrome Causes Heart Problems Due to Stress

Emotional stress can trigger syndrome, put middle-age women at risk.

February 10, 2010, 1:48 PM

Feb. 10, 2010— -- There's a saying that no one ever died from a broken heart, but science shows it can still do a lot of damage. For a person with what's known as broken heart syndrome, an emotional stress like the death of a loved one can cause a seemingly healthy heart to stop working normally.

Doctors estimate 1 to 2 percent of patients who are diagnosed with a heart attack in the U.S. are actually suffering broken heart syndrome. It's easy to understand why -- patients have many of the same symptoms as a heart attack, including chest pains and shortness of breath.

Inside the body, though, broken heart syndrome looks very different from a heart attack. While a heart attack is usually caused by blocked arteries, medical experts believe broken heart syndrome is caused by a surge in adrenaline and other hormones. When patients experience an adrenaline rush in the aftermath of a stressful situation, the heart muscle may be overwhelmed and become temporarily weakened. The left ventricle of the heart takes on a cone-like shape that resembles a Japanese pot used to capture an octopus. That shape gives the condition its medical name -- Takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

Broken heart syndrome can occur following any kind of stress -- everything from a death in the family to fear of public speaking. It can also be caused by physical stress, like an asthma attack or seizure. In a study of some 254 broken heart syndrome patients, the American Journal of Cardiology found that 27 percent of patients had suffered an emotional stress, 39 percent a physical stress, and 24 percent couldn't identify a stress at all.

The vast majority of broken heart syndrome sufferers are women -- studies suggest that 90 to 95 percent of patients are female, and most of them have already gone through menopause. Experts aren't sure why middle-aged women are at greater risk for a broken heart, but sex differences in hormones are one possible cause.

No Known Way to Prevent Broken Heart, But Most Recover

Unfortunately, there's no known way to prevent broken heart syndrome. Many of the patients are healthy and active -- not people you'd guess would have a heart problem.

The good news? Most broken heart patients have a complete recovery and suffer no long-term damage to their hearts. Nearly 95 percent of patients have a complete recovery within two months. While the syndrome can recur, anecdotal evidence suggests it's not likely. Doctors at Johns Hopkins say that in five years of following patients, none have experienced broken heart syndrome a second time.

ABC's Susan Schwartz, and Joanna Schaffhausen contributed to this report.