Can You Die From a Broken Heart?

Red Cross First Aid Instructor CourseBroken heart syndrome, also referred to as stressed-induced or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is a real condition.  Symptoms are very similar to a heart attack but there is no evidence of blocked coronary arteries.  It is usually brought on by extreme emotional or physical stress, such as intense sadness, grief due to the loss of a loved one, anger, intense fear, surgery, illness, or even a surprise.  Broken heart syndrome also almost exclusively strikes women.

With heart attacks, blood clots or blockages form in the coronary arteries.  If the blood supply to the heart is cut off long enough, the heart muscle cells die, and damage is irreversible.  Where broken heart syndrome differs is most who experience the condition show no signs of blocked coronary arteries.  Instead, there is a temporary disruption in the normal pumping function in one area of the heart and although the exact cause is not known, it is thought that the condition is caused by the heart’s reaction to an extreme surge of stress hormones such as adrenalin.

The condition was first reported in Japan in 1990.   The name “Takotsubo” was given to the condition as the heart, during an episode resembles the ballooning shape of an octopus trap, the Japanese translation of Takotsubo.

Most experiencing broken heart syndrome assume they are having a heart attack as they share some of the same symptoms.

Symptoms include but may not be limited to (as reported by Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/takotsubo-cardiomyopathy-broken-heart-syndrome):

  • chest pain and shortness of breath after severe stress (emotional or physical)

Broken heart syndrome also presents with:

  • Electrocardiogram abnormalities that mimic those of a heart attack
  • No evidence of coronary artery obstruction
  • Movement abnormalities in the left ventricle
  • Ballooning of the left ventricle
  • Recovery within a month

More than 90% of cases reported are in women between the ages of 58-75. So why are women in this age group so much more likely to be struck by broken heart syndrome than men?  It is suspected that the decrease in estrogen after menopause may be the key contributing factor.

With medical treatment, death is rare and most recover within 4 weeks.  Treatment may include beta blockers or similar medications that block the potentially damaging effects of stress hormones on the heart.  Recognizing and managing stress in your life may also be key in helping to prevent broken heart syndrome.

If you’re having any chest pain, a very rapid or irregular heartbeat, or shortness of breath after a stressful event, call 911 or emergency medical assistance immediately.