- Rates of "broken heart syndrome," a life-threatening cardiac condition tied to stress, have been significantly higher during the coronavirus pandemic than previous periods, according to a new study.
- Experts think the condition can be caused by any sudden and intense emotion, from heartbreak to shock.
- While most people recover, the findings emphasize the importance of self-care during the pandemic and beyond.
Rates of "broken heart syndrome," a life-threatening cardiac condition thought to be caused by sudden and intense emotions, are way up during the coronavirus, a recent study found.
The study, published in the journal JAMA Network Open July 9, found that 7.8% of patients presenting to two Ohio hospitals with heart-attack-like symptoms during the current pandemic had the syndrome, also called stress cardiomyopathy.
That's significant compared to the just 1.5% to 1.8% of similar patients who had the syndrome in four periods prior to the pandemic.
The findings help illustrate just one way the coronavirus is harming people's health, even if they don't actually contract COVID-19.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about multiple levels of stress in people's lives across the country and world," including related to the illness itself, the economy, and loneliness, lead study author Dr. Ankur Kalra, a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist, said in a press release.
That, he added, can have "can have physical effects on our bodies and our hearts."
The symptoms weren't directly caused by COVID-19
For the study, which included 1,914 patients, Kalra and colleagues compared hospital admissions data between March and April 2020 with four control groups prior to the pandemic.
They also checked to see if any of the people who presented to the hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic with heart-attack-like symptoms had COVID-19 (they didn't).
That suggests "an indirect, psychological, social, and economic pandemic-related stress mechanism behind the disease process," the authors write.
Broken heart syndrome is thought to be caused by intense emotion
Stress cardiomyopathy mimics symptoms of a heart attack, and can be just as deadly, according to a Harvard Health Blog post by Dr. Deepak Bhatt, cardiologist and editor at Harvard Medical School's publishing division who wasn't involved in the study.
The condition is also called "takotsubo cardiomyopathy," so named by the Japanese doctors who discovered it because the ballooning of the heart's left ventricle resembles a takotsubo, an octopus trap.
A typical heart attack kills cells due to blocked arteries. The rush of hormones behind stress cardiomyopathy is believed to "stun" the cells, temporarily inhibiting function. It can cause fatal complications if the heart can't keep up with blood flow and pressure builds.
The death of a loved one, a serious medical diagnosis, a job loss or divorce, or even the shock of winning the lottery can trigger the condition.
"We don't really understand the actual brain mechanism, but the brain response to intense emotion leads the sympathetic nervous system to release hormones to the heart," Harvard psychiatrist Dr. F. Gerard Moeller previously told Insider.
"It usually happens with 24 hours of a severe stressor, such as someone close to you dying," he added. "It's not the standard stress that you have every day, or at work."
Most people recover, but self-care is important
Most patients survive after being treated with medications to lower blood pressure and slow heart rate.
In fact, a study of 24,701 cardiomyopathy patients found that less than 5% of cases were fatal. The vast majority who died had "underlying critical illnesses."
Unlike a heart attack, stress cardiomyopathy only temporarily disrupts the heart and rarely causes permanent damage. Most patients return to normal function within 14 days with no complications, according to Dr. Milena Gebska of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
But the current study, which found no differences in mortality between pandemic-era patients and earlier ones, highlights how important it is for people, COVID-19 patients or not, to take care of their mental health during the pandemic — and beyond.
Experts recommend exercise and meditation, attempting to maintain a routine, reaching out to loved ones, seeking professional help, and focusing on what you're grateful for.
Keeping a gratitude list "helps us to stop narrowly focusing on potential threats or negative elements in our environment, which our limbic brain ... is wired to do," Julie Pike, a licensed psychologist in North Carolina, previously told Insider. "Widening our perspective and recognizing that while things are challenging and uncertain, there are also good things in our daily lives" can make a big difference.
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