Can a broken heart make you physically sick? New research

Broken heart syndrome isn’t really rare and it seems to affect a certain population segment.

 Sad woman (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Sad woman (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Until recently, broken heart syndrome was considered a relatively rare disease, but a new study has found that it affects more and more women in certain age groups.  What are the symptoms and how is this syndrome detected?

This may sound like an invented disease or a psychosomatic phenomena, but broken heart syndrome is an actual medical condition. 

Now, a new study in the Journal of the American Heart Association finds that it’s occurring more frequently, especially among women between the ages of 50 and 74.

Broken heart syndrome, also known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy (from Japanese, traps used to capture octopuses and similar in shape to the structural changes of the syndrome), is a medical phenomenon first defined in 1980 by American pathologists who found that in 11 out of 15 corpses that were autopsied, there were unique structural changes in the heart. 

It’s estimated that 1%-2% of patients admitted to the emergency room with symptoms identical to a heart attack are diagnosed with broken heart syndrome.

The disease is usually preceded by extreme shock, stress or loss, and symptoms include chest pains so severe that they feel like a heart attack, fainting and shortness of breath. 

(Credit: Ingimage)(Credit: Ingimage)

Lead researcher Dr. Susan Cheng from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center said that the trigger could even be something minor, like a surprise party or anything unexpected, from a car accident to a romantic breakup.

Research shows that although the disease isn’t common, it’s also not as rare as once thought. 

Researchers found 135,463 cases in the United States from 2006 to 2017, and in 88.3% of them women 50 and older were involved. In fact, the cases increased most rapidly (at least six times) in women in the 50-74 age group.

The main symptoms of broken heart syndrome are sudden and intense chest pain, a manifestation of a burst of stress hormones which can be caused by an emotionally stressful event.  Such factors are varied and can include the death of a loved one, initiating or closing a divorce, separation and sometimes even a very happy and surprising event.

The manifestations of the syndrome include chest pain and shortness of breath, heart rhythm disorders and even an extreme condition called cardiogenic shock, in which heart function is weakened until it fails to meet the needs of the body. Unlike a heart attack, in most cases the syndrome can be treated and the heart restored to full function within a few weeks, and those who have experienced the syndrome in the past are at low risk of it occurring again. Usually, recovery time is fast and ranges from a few days to weeks.

Cheng said that men and women have different biological systems and therefore have differences in susceptibility to various diseases. 

She added that "these differences even intensify over time, and in this study it seems to be applicable here as well." 

Greater awareness has a part to play in the increase in case documentation, but Cheng said environmental factors not yet identified are probably another factor. Future research will try to determine who may be the most vulnerable. 

"There's probably some basic genetic predisposition," she concluded.