Broken heart syndrome: Can someone die of a heartbreak

  • March 17, 2017

In 2012, when British actress Mary Tamm, known for her role in popular television series ‘Doctor Who’, succumbed to cancer, her husband Marcus Ringrose died just hours later while writing ‘Thank you’ notes to those who had sent their condolences. Recently, when American actress Debbie Reynolds passed away soon after the death of her beloved actressauthor daughter Carrie Fischer, there were speculations that their consecutive deaths were not mere coincidences. And that Debbie Reynolds may have died due to a disorder that is now gaining a lot of medical and media attention ‘The Broken Heart Syndrome.’

Broken heart syndrome or Stressinduced cardiomyopathy

We have often used the phrase ‘died due to a broken heart’ as a metaphor. However, there have been well documented cases that prove that a ‘heart break’ can literally take your breath away! Doctors refer to this medical condition as ‘Stress-induced cardiomyopathy’ or ‘Takotsubo cardiomyopathy’. Takotsubo is a Japanese term that means an octopus trapping fishing pot – the shape taken by the left ventricle of the heart when one suffers from the Broken Heart Syndrome.

What causes the ‘Heart Break’?

When a person is struck by a dramatic shock, it can lead to sudden and high emotional stress. This can cause a surge in stress hormones. Consequently, the left ventricle of the heart enlarges and takes a peculiar shape that resembles a fishing pot. A part of the heart’s muscular portion temporarily weakens and functions abruptly i.e. it does not pump blood well, while the rest of the heart functions normally or with even forceful contractions.

While no exact cause has been diagnosed, medical science has proved that a history of recent severe stress lays the ground for the onset of this disease. Traumatic incidents such as the death of a loved one, betrayal, romantic rejections, professional rejections, physical separation and longing can serve as a catalyst for takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Interestingly, a good shock such as winning a million bucks or happy events such as weddings and birthdays and physical pains such as acute asthma, surgery, chemotherapy can also trigger the syndrome.

The bad news is that stress-induced cardiomyopathy can affect anyone, irrespective of their physical fitness, exclusively women and especially postmenopausal women being most vulnerable cluster. Though the good news is that this disease is completely curable and can be reversed.


Stress cardiomyopathy is today a well-recognised cause of acute heart failure. But what are the symptoms that characterise this silent killer? Heart ache i.e. feeling of intense pain in the chest (angina) followed by shortness of breath and difficulty in breathing are signals of this disorder. The extreme emotional stress that cause this disorder can simultaneously worsen other ailments (such as diabetes and high blood pressure) that a person may be suffering from.

Is Broken Heart Syndrome similar to a Heart Attack?

Many would argue what is the need to assign this medical condition a new term when it has abundant similarities with a cardiac arrest? Although both heart diseases are characterised by changes in the heart rhythm and prima facie appear alike, there are small, yet, significant differences between the two. The broken heart syndrome, for instance, is a non-ischemic cardiomyopathy, which means that unlike a heart attack it does not involve any restriction in blood supply to the tissues and no evidence of blocked heart arteries has ever been recorded. The Electrocardiogram (ECG) results in both the cases vary and there is no sign of heart damage or blockages in the coronary arteries in blood tests for a Broken Heart Syndrome. While a cardiac arrest affects the entire heart, the broken heart syndrome causes unusual movements usually in the lower left heart chamber. In addition, the recovery time in stress-induced cardiomyopathy is quick, generally within weeks or days, as compared to that of a heart attack.

The extreme emotional stress that cause this disorder can simultaneously worsen other ailments that a person may be suffering from.

Heal your heart!

The growing incidences of this disorder have made us realise that a broken heart is more fatal than you ever thought. It can lead to cardiac consequences such as severe short-term heart muscle failure, abnormal contractions in heart, or irregular heartbeats – a condition in which a suddenly weakened heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s requirements, and may even cause death. While it is practically not possible to avoid emotionally stressful situations, what is possible is to condition our body to deal with such unwelcome mishappenings. Thus, surround yourself with positive people, develop a positive outlook towards life, take a deep breath, relax and listen to your heart before it breaks!

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