What is broken heart syndrome and is it real?

We constantly hear of the agony a broken heart can give you in poems and songs. Take “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele:

“The scars of your love remind me of us
They keep me thinking that we almost had it all.
The scars of your love they leave me breathless,
I can’t help feeling, we could have had it all.”

Many of us have felt the pain of heartbreak for some reason or another at some point in our lives. But can you actually die of a broken heart?

I’ll never forget my housemate coming home after Christmas break at University crying and telling me that both of her grandparents, Ned and Wanda had both died suddenly. The first death was her grandpa, Ned, who unexpectedly died after his car was hit by a train that didn’t have level crossing signals to protect drivers from oncoming trains. A few weeks after hearing the news of her husband’s death, Wanda suddenly died for seemingly no reason. The reason? Doctors told their family that she had died of a broken heart.

It seems like fiction, but science says otherwise. When something traumatic happens to us, our brain interprets the experience as a physical assault on our bodies. The pathways that light up when we are in physical pain, light up when we are in emotional pain. Broken Heart Syndrome, also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is the condition where one can have intense chest pain – the reaction to a surge of stress hormones that can be caused by an emotionally stressful event. A part of your heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump well, while the rest of your heart functions normally. This can lead to Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), or cardiogenic shock – a condition where the suddenly weakened heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Broken Heart Syndrome can lead to severe short-term heart muscle failure, and in extreme conditions, it can lead to death.

So basically a ‘broken heart’ is just a heart attack? Actually, no. Broken Heart Syndrome follows after an extreme instance that causes distress. There are other tests that show differing results for Broken Heart Syndrome versus a heart attack. For example, the EKG (electric activity in the heart) test will look different, blood tests will show no signs of heart damage, there will be a lack of blockages in the coronary arteries, there will be a ballooning and unusual movement in the lower left heart chamber, and the recovery time will be within a few days or weeks as compared to a month or more for a heart attack.

What typically causes a heartache so big that it leads to Broken Heart Syndrome or even death? It could be the death of a loved one, a bad break-up, divorce, physical separation from a loved one, natural disaster, job loss, or some other traumatic occurrence. It could even happen after a positive event that shocks you such as winning the lottery.

If you know somebody going through a traumatic event, it is important to keep on the lookout for signs that they may be suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome. The biggest signs to be on the lookout for are chest pain and shortness of breath. It is best to keep them company, comfort them, keep them busy, listen to them, and show them that they are cared for while they are on their path to healing.