Can You Actually Die From A Broken Heart?

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Poor old Szenja, a polar bear at SeaWorld San Diego, passed away this week, reportedly “dying of a broken heart” after her long-term companion was moved to a different park. You might have heard of this before, such as when an elderly couple dies within a few days of each other after 70 years of good health. Johnny Cash famously died just a few months after his beloved wife died. His fans often talk about how he died of a broken heart, even though the death certificate indicates complications from diabetes.

So is there actually any science behind this idea of a “broken heart”? Or is it all romantic nonsense?

It’s undeniable that psychological stress (in excess) is not good for your health, as it can compromise your immune system and leave you at risk of an illness. However, there is also a very strange medical phenomenon that mimics a broken heart.

This documented condition is called “broken heart syndrome", or scientifically known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, acute stress-induced cardiomyopathy, and apical ballooning syndrome.

The syndrome is triggered by a sudden rush of adrenaline to the heart muscle. This can shock one of the heart’s bottom pumping chambers, causing it stop pumping and making the top chambers pump harder. This stress makes the chamber then blow-up like a balloon. The outward symptoms pretty much look like they're having a heart attack, including chest pains, breathlessness, and collapsing. 

A 1997 study in the journal Heart was one of the first times this phenomenon was documented in humans. It told the story of two patients who experienced acute cardiomyopathy that was “related to major emotional stress alone.”

It is often seen as a temporary condition, as the heart can return to its regular shape after treatment, although the death rate is around 4 to 5 percent, the British Heart Foundation told IFLScience.

Dr Alexander Lyon is consultant cardiologist at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London, one of the UK’s largest heart specialist hospitals. He’s currently researching Takotsubo cardiomyopathy and hopes to exand his studies with groups of fellow European researchers.

Speaking to the Guardian, he explained: "To a cardiologist, a heart attack means a blocked coronary artery, but in this condition, we find the coronary arteries are open and the blood supply is fine. We then look at the pumping chamber and it's paralyzed, plus it's taken on a unique and abnormal shape; it looks like a Japanese fisherman's octopus pot, called Takotsubo, hence its name."

He estimated that as many as 2 percent of assumed "heart attacks" each year in the UK will, in fact, be broken heart syndrome.

So, in between all the anecdotal evidence, there is an element of truth behind stories of dying from a “broken heart”, even if it can't quite account for all the romantic tales that surround it.

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