“Dying of a broken heart” is more than just a turn of phrase. The despair of losing a loved one—the stress and the anxiety and the pumping adrenaline—can actually kill you. Writing for The Conversation, cardiologist Alexander Lyon tells the tale of the broken-hearted, those whose hearts simply shut down during times of stress.
Known to doctors as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, broken heart syndrome is a special type of heart attack. In a normal heart attack, a blocked artery chokes the flow of blood to the heart, cutting off the supply of oxygen and killing heart tissues. In a Takotsubo heart attack, there is no such blockage. For the broken-hearted, nine out of ten of whom are “middle-aged or elderly women,” says Lyon:
They have chest pains, a shortness of breath and ECG monitors show the same extreme changes which we see with a heart attack.
But when an angiogram is performed, none of their coronary arteries are blocked. Instead, the lower half of their ventricle, the main pumping chamber of their heart, shows a very peculiar and distinctive abnormality – it fails to contract, and appears partially or completely paralysed.
…In the most extreme cases the heart can stop – a cardiac arrest.
We’re still not really sure what causes broken heart syndrome, writes Lyon, but research suggests that adrenaline—the hormone behind the body’s “fight or flight” response—may be to blame.
At low and medium levels adrenaline is a stimulating hormone, triggering the heart to beat harder and faster, which we need during exercise or stress. However at the highest levels it has the opposite effect and can reduce the power the heart has to beat and triggering temporary heart muscle paralysis.
Unlike normal heart attacks, where the tissues are usually damaged for good, people can often walk away from a Takotsubo heart attack unscathed. But though the physical damage may be undone, a broken heart never truly mends.
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