Cause of Death: Broken Heart
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Beware: That breakup could be deadly.
You thought your last breakup was the end of the world? Really, friend, you got off easy, because it turns out a broken heart can kill you. Of course, it has to be a really broken heart to rise to a Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, in doctor-speak. In English, it’s sudden heart failure caused by emotional trauma. The trigger can be anything from a car accident or the loss of a loved one to a breakup or a divorce.
Symptoms are similar to a heart attack’s, like chest pain and shortness of breath. While most who suffer from Takotsubo cardiomyopathy recover, the condition can be fatal. What’s more, there is no known treatment for it. And worst of all, the broken heart does not repair by itself, according to a recent study by the University of Aberdeen. The physical inflammation of the heart does not go away. The upshot? Whoever said “Time heals all wounds” wasn’t a cardiologist.
“Broken heart syndrome” is a relatively recent discovery. For decades, doctors misdiagnosed it as a common heart attack, but in the 1990s, Japanese researchers stumbled upon a curiosity: Patients presented with cardiac-arrest symptoms but, when examined, showed no blockage in their coronary arteries. Instead, certain parts of their heart appeared to be weirdly swollen, which is why the researchers used the Japanese phrase for “octopus trap” to name it.
This somehow poetic yet very dangerous syndrome affects mostly women. Still, the leader of the Aberdeen study, Dana Dawson, a senior lecturer in cardiac medicine, says that female bodies usually manage broken hearts better than male ones. Men tend to have more severe symptoms and longer recoveries, she says: “We don’t know why.”
You probably need not panic. Physical “broken hearts” are very rare, so it’s worth knowing the differences between the symptoms of an emotional bump and life-threatening cardiomyopathy. For example, if you feel an overpowering urge to eat ice cream, drink yourself into oblivion or stalk your ex on Facebook, good news: Your heart will be just fine. But if you experience severe chest pain and shortness of breath, you might want to rush to the emergency room.
Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy: The Symptoms
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Arm pain
Not that it’s all doom and gloom for the brokenhearted. Time can help heal emotional trauma, says Deborah Serani, a clinical psychologist and author of Living With Depression. Even if the heart inflammation doesn’t disappear, she says, the cortisol associated with the stress of cardiomyopathy lessens over time. You can hasten the process, too: No, not with with Häagen-Dazs, but with exercise, meditation and just talking. “Express your feelings!” says Serani. Doing so “greatly reduces the body’s stress response.”
It’s a mystery as to why some hearts shut down when their owners are suffering, while others normally beat on, resilient and strong. Because scientific research into Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is still at an embryonic stage, we might not find out for a long time. In the meantime, though, the next time someone breaks your heart? You might consider suing for attempted murder.