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Broken heart syndrome – is it real?

broken heart Blog

The recent news about former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie’s parents dying within an hour of each other after being married for 56 years is shining the spotlight on broken heart syndrome.

According to Flutie in a Facebook post, his father, Dick, had been ill and died of a heart attack in the hospital on Nov. 18. Less than an hour later, Dick Flutie’s wife, Joan, suddenly had a heart attack and also died.

The American Heart Association explains that broken heart syndrome, also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, can strike even if you’re healthy. Takotsubo is a Japanese word for an octopus trap that resembles the heart’s shape during the abnormal contracture. Broken heart syndrome, although often treatable, can lead to short-term heart muscle failure and even death.

According to the AHA, women are more likely than men to experience the sudden, intense chest pain that results from a surge of stress hormones. The pain can be caused by an emotionally stressful event — both bad (e.g., the death of a loved one) and good (e.g., winning the lottery).

Signs and Symptoms

The most common signs and symptoms of broken heart syndrome include:

  • Angina or chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats)
  • Cardiogenic shock (a condition in which a suddenly weakened heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs)

Emotional vs. physical triggers

Despite the belief that emotional stressors are likely the cause of broken heart syndrome, in particular among postmenopausal women, the first large analysis of clinical features and outcomes among these patients challenges this belief.

The study, which appeared in the Sept. 3, 2015, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, featured 1,750 patients from Europe and the United States enrolled in the International Takotsubo Registry. Of these 1,750 patients — 89.8 percent of whom were women (mean age, 66.8 years) — emotional triggers were not as common as physical triggers (27.7 percent vs. 36 percent), and 28.5 percent of patients had no evident trigger.

Talk with your doctor

While the jury is still out as to whether emotional or physical triggers are the more likely cause of broken heart syndrome/takotsubo cardiomyopathy, be sure to talk with your healthcare provider if you suspect a heart condition.

Take the next step:


Frankel-informal-vertical-sigThe University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is a top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.