Working in hospitals, it is common to see that when one spouse passes away, the surviving spouse goes downhill rapidly and often dies shortly thereafter. Obviously, this isn’t always the case, but anyone who has worked in a hospital for a while can tell you that it’s not uncommon. This doesn’t always occur with spouses, it can occur with siblings, or parents and their children…any close relationship, really. In fact, it can happen to someone whose beloved pet has passed away. Rarely, these people are literally dying of a broken heart.
Broken heart syndrome is a real condition, also known as stress cardiomyopathy. It is believed that about one percent of perceived heart attacks are actually attributable to broken heart syndrome. People with this condition develop rapid and severe heart muscle weakness after suffering intense emotional or physical stress.
Examples of events that could lead to the development of broken heart syndrome include:
- Emotional stressors
- Losing a job
- Getting divorced
- Public speaking
- Natural disasters
- Domestic abuse
- Extreme hostility/anger
- Good and surprising news, like winning the lottery
- Physical stressors
- Difficulty breathing (such as with asthma)
- Significant bleeding
When we are under physical or emotional stress, our bodies produce hormones, such as adrenaline. These hormones might lead to narrowing or a temporary constriction of the arteries that supply blood to the heart or the hormones might attach themselves to the cells of the heart and allow large amounts of calcium into the cells of the heart, leading to abnormal functioning. Adrenaline literally stuns the hearts of people who go on to develop cardiac myopathy.
It most often occurs in women over the age of 50; as it is believed that reduced levels of estrogen after menopause are a contributing factor. The majority of people with stress cardiomyopathy do not have severe blockages or clots in their arteries, like people who suffer heart attacks usually do. The cells of the heart do not die during stress cardiomyopathy, as they do when someone is suffering a heart attack.
Symptoms can include:
- Chest pain
- Difficult breathing
- Arm pain
- Low blood pressure
- Heart arrythmias
These symptoms most often occur just minutes to hours after exposure to a severe, and most often unexpected, stress. Individuals who develop stress cardiomyopathy are at risk of dying from congestive heart failure, low blood pressure, pulmonary edema, shock, and possible life-threatening heart rhythm changes. This is uncommon, however, and most people recover rather quickly (in about a week). Some individuals may need to take angiotensin-converting-enzyme (ACE) inhibitors or beta-blockers for a short period of time.
Long-term and untreated depression, anxiety and chronic stress are both known to lead to the development of heart disease and to spur heart attacks; over time, they reduce the ability of your coronary arteries to dilate or constrict. In fact negative emotions (such as hostility or grief) are known to be cardiotoxic; they cause the release of the same stress hormones that lead to broken heart syndrome after a single episode of shock. In fact, people with high levels of chronic stress appear to have the same risk of heart disease as those who smoke cigarettes. They also have a higher risk of heart attack than people with diabetes, hypertension, or high cholesterol.
Optimism reduces the risks of developing coronary heart disease or dying prematurely. Being satisfied with your job, family, sex life, and self are protective against heart disease and people who report being satisfied in these areas are less likely to have a heart attack in the next five years compared to unsatisfied people. Even taking the fact that content people tend to eat better, exercise more, and smoke less into account does not fully explain this difference. What seems to be protective? Feeling that your life has meaning, having a passion, and being mindful.