- Broken heart syndrome, also known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, can cause the heart to pump poorly and produce symptoms similar to those of a heart attack.
- The syndrome, which can be fatal, increased from 2006 to 2017, affecting more than 135,460 Americans, a 2021 study found.
- While women aged 50 to 74 are at highest risk for broken heart syndrome, recent evidence suggests that the disease may put men at greater risk of death.
Can you suffer from a broken heart – and die from it?
A growing body of medical research suggests you can – and the likelihood has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following Thursday’s death of Joe Garcia, whose wife Irma Garcia was one of two teachers killed in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, family members said his heart was broken after his wife’s death.
“I truly believe that Joe died heartbroken and the loss of the love of his life of 25+ years was too much to bear,” wrote Debra Austin, a cousin of Irma Garcia, on a GoFundMe page, to raise money for the Garcias. four children survived. So far, the site has raised more than $2.5 million.
Maybe that’s because many Americans can empathize. Even before the arrival of COVID-19 prompted a nationwide shutdown in early 2020, a disease called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome, was on the rise.
What is Broken Heart Syndrome?
In broken heart syndrome, the heart’s main pumping chamber temporarily enlarges and pumps poorly, according to the American Heart Association. As a result, patients experience chest pain and shortness of breath, symptoms that can resemble a heart attack.
“The heart muscle suddenly weakens when you’re under a lot of stress,” said Dr. Ilan Wittstein, cardiologist and professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He co-authored a 2005 study on the syndrome.
Stress that leads to broken heart syndrome can be emotional—death of a loved one or anxiety after a car accident or victim of a crime—or it can be physical, like a stroke, pneumonia, or a serious infection, or even extreme physical strain. “If you think of the heart as a pump that has to pump blood to the rest of the body, a sudden weakening of the heart muscle can lead to a situation where blood can no longer get to the vital organs and a person can die,” said Wittstein.
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Broken heart syndrome is different from a traditional heart attack because patients typically don’t have blockages in the heart’s arteries, he said. If there isn’t an autopsy on the deceased, it’s impossible to know whether they died of a heart attack, broken heart syndrome, or some other type of trauma or stress-related heart condition, Wittstein said.
“It’s those chemicals, hormones and proteins that are produced in the body during times of stress that can really be the trigger for all three of these conditions,” he said.
As for Garcia, “there’s no question that what he went through contributed to his death,” Wittstein said.
According to a study by Dr. Susan Cheng, cardiologist and epidemiologist and director of the Institute for Research on Healthy Aging in the Department of Cardiology, rates of broken heart syndrome have been increasing in recent years.
The study, published in October 2021 in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that rates of broken heart syndrome increased from 2006 to 2017. More than 135,460 Americans had the syndrome during that time, with women ages 50 to 74 experiencing the greatest increase.
Although women are more likely to suffer from broken heart syndrome, recent research has found that “when it affects men, men are actually at a higher risk of dying from it,” said Wittstein, who wrote an editorial about the research in the May 31 issue is written by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
“If broken heart syndrome was indeed the cause of death (for Garcia), it’s certainly more common to see someone die from it if they’re male than if they’re female,” Wittstein said.
How has COVID impacted Broken Heart Syndrome?
Cheng’s ongoing research suggests broken heart syndrome, stress-related heart disease and traditional heart attacks have continued to increase during the pandemic.
“We’re seeing an intensification,” Cheng said.
More patients with few or no heart risk factors — smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a sedentary lifestyle — also have heart disease, and stress from the pandemic is among the culprits, she said.
“Where it used to take just a little bit of stress on top of many pre-existing risk factors to trigger a heart attack, now you don’t even need that much pre-existing risk… because there’s so much stress,” Cheng said. “We have a new baseline of stress that we are all living with now. And when you stack an incredibly profound tragic event like what happened in Texas at Robb Elementary School on top of that, it just completely overwhelms the system.”
Breathing problems caused by COVID-19 infection could also likely increase broken heart syndrome cases, Wittstein said. “I think the pandemic has led to this increase in cases from different angles, both on the emotional side and on the physical side.”
What can I do to reduce the risk of Broken Heart Syndrome?
If a person survives the onset of broken heart syndrome, they can often recover within days or weeks, the AHA says. But the long-term effects of the syndrome remain unknown and under investigation. Some research suggests that people who have had broken heart syndrome are at higher risk of future heart events.
We live in such a stressful environment right now, Cheng said she encourages people “to see if you can take steps to relieve that stress.”
Some may want grief counseling, which can be provided by employers or community organizations, or therapy. Activities like yoga, tai chi, other exercises, and meditation can help reduce stress.
“We don’t have a medical cure for stress,” Cheng said. “But we can try to see the loss and how it’s affecting us as individuals living in these communities, and even remotely. I can tell you personally, as this story unfolded, I think every single parent I know, regardless of where they lived in the world, was deeply affected.”
In the midst of today’s “incredibly high levels of environmental stress,” she said, “it’s critical to recognize how this is affecting us as individuals, as well as our social and our family and home relationships.”
Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.