Can You Really Die Of A Broken Heart?

Over the years you've probably heard a few stories of couples, married for decades, dying within minutes to days of each other, seemingly unable to live without each other. The loss of a loved one is one of the most common triggers of stress or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (via WebMD). If that condition sounds vaguely familiar, it's probably because you've heard it called by another name, something called "broken heart syndrome." 

Broken heart syndrome is a temporary (but sometimes fatal) condition in which people begin experiencing sudden chest pain, shortness of breath, and feeling as though they are having a heart attack. While initial electrocardiograms (ECG) may demonstrate changes similar to those seen in real heart attacks, further imaging and laboratory studies fail to find coronary artery obstruction, or increased troponin levels (via Harvard Health Publishing). Instead, a temporary ballooning of the left ventricle can be seen with an echocardiogram.

The left ventricle is critical to the proper functioning of the heart, as it is responsible for pumping oxygenated blood to the entire rest of the body. Suffering from broken heart syndrome causes the left ventricle to temporarily weaken and enlarge, decreasing its ability to pump blood where it needs to go. The exact mechanism which causes this change in the left ventricle is still poorly understood, but it is believed that a significant stressor causes an increase in stress hormone levels throughout the body, triggering changes to the heart.

Significant stressors are triggers for developing broken heart syndrome

Broken heart syndrome is typically brought on within a few hours after experiencing a significant stress or shock. Some of the most commonly known triggers include: death of a loved one, a new devastating medical diagnosis, serious surgery, severe pain, physical abuse, financial difficulties, and many more. Less commonly, the condition can be a result of certain prescription medications and illegal drugs.

Historically, woman over the age of 50 are at the highest risk of developing broken heart syndrome. Other risk factors include genetics, head injury, neurologic conditions such as epilepsy, or history of psychiatric diseases such as anxiety or depression. 

Treatment of broken heart syndrome depends primarily on the severity of symptoms. Commonly, medications used to treat heart failure are given and most cases resolve within one to two months. In some cases, broken heart syndrome can ultimately lead to death.

So during the dark seasons of life, do your best to focus on the glimmers of light and hope, to not only sustain your mental health, but to also avoid potentially fatal cardiac and physiologic complications.