You’ve seen it in movies or in the news: Sweethearts married for decades die within a few days of each other. People call it “broken heart syndrome,” and it’s real.
Losing a loved one can be emotionally devastating. It’s rare, but sometimes an overwhelming loss can affect physical health, including the heart, too.
Luckily, doctors can treat most cases, if you know what to look out for.
The Heart Responds
Broken heart symptoms, such as chest tightness and shortness of breath, can seem like a heart attack.
The problem happens when psychological distress triggers sudden weakness of the heart muscle. It can be caused by sudden shock or acute anxiety. Doctors call it “stress-induced cardiomyopathy” or “takotsubo myopathy.”
The heart has its mysteries, including the reason why it can suddenly grow weak due to physical or emotional stress.
It could be that a flood of the stress hormone adrenaline is too much for it to handle. One theory is that adrenaline causes the heart’s arteries to narrow so much that they cut off blood flow to the muscle.
Unlike a heart attack, broken heart syndrome makes part of your heart larger, temporarily. This can change how your ticker pumps, which causes the symptoms.
Who Gets It?
It can happen to anyone, but it’s more common among women than men, in middle age or older. What makes the condition even more puzzling is that the people who get it usually have no history of heart trouble.
While we tend to hear about broken heart syndrome when someone loses her long-time spouse or partner, it can happen in other situations, too. Someone might go through it after a major relationship breakup, serious financial problems, job loss, or domestic abuse. It can also happen in situations that make you extremely anxious, like public speaking, or very startled, such as a surprise party. The stress of surgery and other major physical issues may also act as a trigger.
Because the symptoms can feel like a heart attack, you should call 911. Even if it is not a heart attack, the initial symptoms may be life-threatening, so it is important to get medical attention.
At the hospital, you may get blood tests and an electrocardiogram (EKG). If it’s broken heart syndrome, those results will help confirm that it wasn’t a heart attack.
Imaging tests -- a coronary angiogram, for example -- would show that your organ's lower left chamber is bigger than normal, and that your heart isn’t pumping the way it should.
Tell your doctor about your loss and your grief, too. This can help him figure out what’s going on.
Talk with your doctor about how you’ll need to take these medications.
Because your heart became weaker physically, you may be more likely to get heart failure or to have heart rhythm problems. Your doctor should talk about that with you and tell you and what follow-up care you’ll need.
Counseling can also help you with the grief or anxiety that brought on your symptoms. Ask your doctor to recommend a therapist who can help you talk through your feelings and find ways to manage them as you face your new situation.
In a few months, you should be past the heart problems.
After that, you’re not at any higher risk of a broken heart than anyone else. Thankfully, having this syndrome once doesn’t make you more likely to get it again.