Can you really die of a broken heart?

broken heart
Source: sasint (via Pixabay)

By Anna Thomas | Science Editor

“Hearts can break. Yes, hearts can break. Sometimes I think it would be better if we died when they did, but we don’t.” 

With this reflection, Stephen King joins the myriad poets, authors, artists and musicians in describing the universally acknowledged and unfortunate consequence of love: heartbreak. Whether following a messy breakup, losing a loved one or the estrangement of a favourite friend, heartbreak is an experience known to be painful in its many forms. However, just a small step away from King’s imagined world of love, loss and dying of a broken heart, there lies a very real medical condition colloquially known as Broken Heart Syndrome. So, what is this mystery ailment, and can heartache really kill us? 

Broken Heart Syndrome is a press-popularized name for Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, a condition first recognised in Japan in the 1990s. The condition is characterised by a ballooning of the left ventricle of the heart, giving it a ‘jug-like’ appearance like that of a Takotsubo, a Japanese pot used to trap octopus. 

Although the exact aetiology of Broken Heart Syndrome remains a subject of contention, it is widely observed that onset often follows exposure of the patient to great emotional stress. Bereavement and grief, such as that experienced following loss is classically used as an example. However, there are various other notable triggers from financial stress or problems at work to extremes such as being involved in an accident or natural disaster. Experts hypothesise the occurrence of a disturbing event floods the heart with stress hormones which triggers changes in blood flow to the heart thus the characteristic ballooning described and the onset of associated pain symptoms. 

Therefore, is the palpable ache experienced following a brutal break up your heart physically responding? In short: no. Broken Heart Syndrome is considered an extreme consequence of stress with initial presentations sharing striking similarities with a heart attack. In both cases, sufferers describe intense chest pain and difficulty breathing as the primary symptoms. 

Obviously, whilst few are fortunate enough to get through life without experiencing a major upset in some form or other, we do not all find ourselves hospitalised with heart complaints. Only an estimated 2% of those presenting to the hospital with suspected acute coronary syndrome have Broken Heart Syndrome. In fact, whilst the British Heart Foundation reports 7.6 million people in the UK live with a heart or circulatory disease, according to Cardiomyopathy UK, Broken Heart Syndrome is thought to affect only 2500 people each year. 

Characterised as a reversible condition, with the majority of patients recovering their cardiac function within a few weeks, a broken heart is a far cry from the death knell the poets would have you believe. One study investigating in-hospital mortality rates of some 21,994 Broken Heart Syndrome Patients between 2008 and 2009, found a mortality rate of only 4.2%, the majority of whom also had additional underlying critical illness. 

Evidently whilst Broken Heart Syndrome is a very real condition of increasing interest to those in the field, the likelihood that you will experience such an eventuality is slim and, even for those that do, the dangerous consequences remain limited. Thus, following your next catastrophic breakup, you can rest easy in the knowledge that, Stephen King was right, it won’t kill you.  

Anna Thomas Science and Technology

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