Can you really die from a broken heart?
Science & Tech / /
Extreme emotional trauma can weaken the heart so much that it can have fatal outcome.
When someone endures a terrible loss or loses someone extremely close, people often say that their heart is broken. But, of course, that’s just figuratively. Typically it describes the mental pain associated with losing a loved one. But such a proverbial broken heart can also cause physical symptoms. And, in rare cases, those physiological changes—often accompanied by other conditions—can be considered as a threat for your life.
A number of examples over the years have proven this connection. The most recent one is Debbie Reynolds, who passed away last December only a few days after her daughter, fellow actress Carrie Fisher, died suddenly of a heart attack. According to The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers may have found another case in Texas. Recently published study describes a woman whose heart disfunction could be caused by the loss of her cherished pet.
There is a lot of mystery around this phenomenon, but it already has its name: Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo syndrome. Literally translated from Japanese it means “octopus trap,” referencing the way in which the phenomenon develops.
As Popular Science reports, in a classic heart attack, a clot forms within a person’s blood vessels. This restricts blood flow, with its life-sustaining oxygen, to the heart. But in the case of Takotsubo syndrome, what appears to be a massive heart attack comes without any identifiable clot to cause it.
Symptoms of Takotsubo mimic a normal heart attack. The patient often complains of shortness of breath, has dangerously high blood pressure, and experiences chest pain. But instead of a clot, weakened heart muscles are to blame. The many clinical case reports and studies on Takotsubo syndrome suggest that this condition almost always presents in individuals who have experienced some sort of intense trauma or extreme emotional hardship—losing a loved one, especially a spouse or a child.
A 2005 study, which included 19 cases of the condition, 18 of which were in women, as well as a few other smaller studies, suggested that the cause of Takotsubo syndrome is most probably cause of a hormonal response to extreme stress. When undergoing a traumatic event, the body starts to release stress hormones. The stress hormones can than reach the muscles in the heart through the bloodstream and make them weaker. If looked at the heart, it would seem like it was squeezed. The effect is similar to a trap often used to catch octopus, which is how it gets the name.
Takotsubo syndrome can affect anyone no matter the age or sex, who is experiencing severe emotional trauma but its consequences are rarely fatal. Most often, the person recovers as the time. According to a report in The New York Times, doctors consider that estrogen might have its role in protecting the heart’s blood vessels, because of the fact that Takotsubo syndrome primarily affects women and usually has its most severe outcome in older women. Since estrogen levels tend to decrease as we age, older woman might be exposed at a higher risk of deadly outcome.