Broken Heart Syndrome

Broken Heart Syndrome, Cardiologists are beginning to recognize what obituary writers have known all along: A broken heart can kill.

In recent years, they've begun diagnosing "broken heart syndrome," a sudden weakness of the heart brought on by stress, such as from the death of a loved one. The American Heart Association is urging physicians to be aware of the condition and calling for more research into the hormonal influences that cause it.

The Rev. Michele Morton lost her father the same month she suffered an episode of heart trouble. He died six days before she began seminary classes in Atlanta and a year after her mother died.

"I'm kind of known to be a pretty calm person," she said. "You don't see the stress all the time, but I think it was there anyway. I was having stressful event after stressful event."

She spent five days in the intensive care unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Her heart fully recovered within a couple of months. This syndrome does not cause an actual heart attack, although stressful situations such as the loss of a loved one also can trigger heart attacks, doctors say.

Older women are most vulnerable to broken heart syndrome, but the vast majority who go to a hospital for treatment survive. There is no good data on whether the many widows who die at home after the deaths of longtime husbands experienced takotsubo cardiomyopathy, as the Japanese doctors who discovered the disorder named it.

A database of 6,229 hospital discharges presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2011 indicated women are 7.5 times more likely than men to get the syndrome. Women older than 55 have three times greater risk than those younger.

Japanese physicians identified the syndrome in 1990, but it did not gain widespread attention in the United States until 2005, when a study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
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