Brain and Body

Is It Actually Possible to Die From a Broken Heart?

January 7, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

broken candy heart
Photo credit: Jackie/flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

Getting your heart broken is no fun, but can it kill you?

If your heart were physically broken, yes, you’d be dead. But what about the metaphorical broken heart — that intense pain and despair you feel after a lover leaves you or a close family member dies — can you actually die from it?

Unlike the heart with a jagged line splitting through it that you likely imagine when you think of a broken heart, a real-life broken heart is a serious medical condition. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (TTC), also known as broken heart syndrome, was first recognized by Japanese researchers over 20 years ago.

TTC temporarily affects the heart’s ability to pump efficiently, and the individual experiences similar symptoms to those of a heart attack, including chest pain and shortness of breath. It’s less common, but broken heart syndrome can ultimately cause death.

The main difference between TTC and a heart attack is that a heart attack occurs when the coronary arteries become blocked, but the broken heart syndrome is preceded by severe psychological or physical stress — the exact mechanism that causes it is still unclear. However, the scientific community generally accepts that stress hormones, such as adrenaline, are partially to blame.

SEE ALSO: Take a Closer Look at The World's Biggest Heart

The condition earned the name “broken heart syndrome” since it was first recognized in women who had experienced traumatic emotional events, like the death of a spouse. Heartbreak isn’t limited to losing a lover, however. Other stressors that can contribute to broken heart syndrome include losing a pet, family arguments, anniversary of a death, and traumatic social or environmental events like war or natural disasters.

The list of stressors linked to TTC is seemingly endless. Shockingly, some research has suggested that the condition can even occur with the emotional responses to happy events.

TTC appears to be most problematic for postmenopausal women, as research shows that 90 percent of reported cases occur in women aged between 65 and 70 years old. However, since the condition is becoming more widely recognized in the medical community, young women, men, and children are also reporting broken heart syndrome.

How is broken heart syndrome treated? Initially, it’s treated the same as a heart attack, but once TTC is diagnosed, there will be changes to the medications. Drugs that relax the blood vessels, reduce high blood pressure, and control heart rhythm are usually given to reduce the workload on the heart — these medicines are known as angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and beta blockers. However, doctors are still trying to determine which medications are best at treating TTC, as well as how long they should be given to a patient.

Unfortunately, unless our stress levels stop getting spiked by negative events, it doesn’t look like broken heart syndrome will be going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, since the stress levels in society are on a rise, it’s likely that we’ll see more cases of TTC start to pop up, according to The Conversation’s Angela Kucia.

So while the chances are low, you can in fact die from a broken heart — all the more reason to use neuroscience tips to remain calm under pressure and practice meditation in order to best control your stress levels.

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