Can You Really Die of a Broken Heart?

Feb 10, 2017 / Cardiology

By Robert Harizi, MD
Reliant Medical Group Cardiology

Most of us have probably experienced a broken heart at some point in our lives, but can you really die from an emotionally stressful event like losing a loved one? According to cardiologists, the answer is yes. In fact, broken heart syndrome is a recognized medical condition.

Broken heart syndrome, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy, can strike those with no previous heart issues. The temporary condition can be caused by any stressful, emotional event such as the loss of a job, a divorce, an explosive argument, or the sudden death of a spouse or other loved one. (Actress Debbie Reynolds was believed to have died from broken heart syndrome after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher.) The condition was first identified in Japan where it is known as Takotsubo Syndrome. Fortunately, in most cases broken heart syndrome is not fatal.

Broken heart syndrome symptoms mimic a typical heart attack

Most people who are suffering from broken heart syndrome believe they are having a heart attack. However, it is not caused by blocked arteries like the typical heart attack. Broken heart syndrome is believed to be caused by a surge of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which narrow the arteries and temporarily limit blood flow to the heart. This can cause an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and sudden death in some cases.

The most common victims of broken heart syndrome are women who are post-menopausal. Although the initial symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath mimic a heart attack, there are ways a doctor will be able to tell the difference between a heart attack and stress-induced cardiomyopathy:

  • EKG test results look different than a heart attack
  • Blood tests show no sign of heart damage
  • There are no signs of blockages in the coronary arteries
  • Tests show ballooning and unusual movement in the heart’s left ventricle
  • Recovery time is quicker than a heart attack

Since there is no way that we can avoid stressful events like the death of a loved one, it’s important to be aware of the warning signs of broken heart syndrome and act on them quickly. If you have shortness of breath and chest pain, always seek medical attention immediately. (Warning signs of a heart attack can also include jaw pain, arm or back pain, sweating, nausea and an overwhelming sense of fatigue). The good news is that those who survive stress-induced cardiomyopathy usually make a full recovery and do not have a high risk of it happening again.

Can You Really Die of a Broken Heart?

About Robert Harizi, MD, Chief of Cardiology

During his time as a cardiologist, Dr. Robert Harizi has learned that each patient is truly unique and often needs individualized therapy. “After making a diagnosis, I try to tailor the treatment which has the highest likelihood of success to that person. Before you begin any treatment plan, you have to take into consideration a patient’s lifestyle, what their job is, what their attitudes are – a comprehensive approach. It’s very...

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5 Responses

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  1. Posted by Jo Weldon

    Really, you broke my heart when I had to come see you instead of Dr. Pazzella. Finding out he retired was a bummer. Who asks a patient if they know they had a heart attack? That the was weirdest thing ever. He said I have minimal damage to my heart in recent ekg. Well, 3/24/11 at 52 years old I was told by Dr. David of UMass that I had a massive heart attack. I went by ambulance to the hospital and they were ready for me. I have a bare metal stent in my circumflex artery is what I am told. 99% blocked. I had pain in my back for weeks. No damage to my heart I was told. Who asks that? “How do you know you had a heart attack?” Well, my chest was heavy, I could barely breathe and my arms were limp. Umass was ready for me. Thankful to the medical squad that came to my aid. My husband wanted to drive me. I knew it was a case of speed. March 24th, 2011 at about 4:30 pm. Rush hour traffic from Oxford to Worcester via 290. Then years later I get Dr. Harizi…who tells me I have little damage to my heart and just because I have a stent doesn’t mean I had a heart attack. OMG….are you for real? I was told I didn’t have any damage back in 2011. So I guess I had a heart attack in between these visits if I show damage now. I came to see you for your advice on an operation on my mouth, stopping my 325mg asprerin and all. and you changed my statin to Lipitor. OMG, I hope you know what your are doing. Dr. Harizi is taking Dr. Pazzella’s job….not sure about this. Scared to death because Worcester Medical Center/St. Vincents given me wrong meds before and burned my veins when I had spinal fusion surgery. HELP! My husband and I pay $1500/per month…more than our mortgage. We want competent healthcare.

    September 28, 2017 11:33 pm Reply
  2. Posted by Scott

    My 46 year old son died of cardiomyopathy last March, he was receiving treatment but died suddenly. He did have a tremendous amount of stress in his life.

    February 14, 2017 7:09 am Reply
  3. Posted by Barbara S Perotto

    Dr Harizi, THANK YOU SO MUCH for this well written and concise article. I experienced an episode of this condition while being bullied in my workplace 3 years ago. Many people did not understand that it was NOT a heart attack. I’m glad to have your article to share with them. Thank you

    February 12, 2017 11:06 am Reply
  4. Posted by Faith

    Thank you for the valuable news letters with beneficial facts. I enjoy reading them.

    February 10, 2017 10:58 pm Reply

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