Broken Heart Syndrome Is Real, And It’s Disproportionately Affecting Women During The Pandemic

Broken Heart Syndrome: What it is and why it’s affecting women.

Most of us know what it means to have a “broken heart,” and an unfortunate amount of us have experienced it first hand, whether it was after an emotional breakup or upon the loss of a loved one. As it turns out, however, having a “broken heart” is more than just a phrase or a mental concept. In fact, there’s actually a clinical diagnosis called “broken heart syndrome” and it’s disproportionately affecting women more than men, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also known as Takotsubo heart disease in the medical world, this condition is often the result of stress-induced heart disease and is typically caused by emotional stressors including loss of loved ones, receiving devastating and heart-breaking news, or intense arguments with friends or relatives, explains Neda Dianati-Maleki, MD, cardiologist with the Women’s Heart Health Program at Stony Brook Heart Institute. According to a study published in the journal JAMA Network Open, there have been recent reports of increased incidences of this condition.

Researchers at hospitals across the country have reported what they consider a surge in broken heart syndrome cases during the pandemic, most notably in women. A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, suggests that middle-aged and older women are being diagnosed with this condition up to 10 times more often than younger women or men of any age. However, researchers note that while COVID stressors may certainly be a contributing factor, diagnoses have been rising steadily since before the pandemic.

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broken heart syndrome

What is broken heart syndrome?

Historically, broken heart syndrome was discovered in Japan and named “takotsubo,” which translates to “octopus trap,” because the heart takes on a similar shape during an attack. “The heart is a muscular pump and pumps the blood to the entire body including the vital organs, but, in broken heart syndrome, parts of the heart muscle rapidly weaken and stop working normally,” explains Dr. Dianati-Maleki. “As a result, the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently, which can cause symptoms of chest pain and difficulty breathing.”

You might be wondering: Isn’t broken heart syndrome essentially a heart attack? Not exactly, according to Dr. Dianati-Maleki. “A heart attack is usually caused by blockages in the arteries of the heart, but in broken heart syndrome, there is usually no significant disease in the heart arteries,” she says. The only way for doctors to diagnose the condition is through ultrasound imaging to find the physical attributes, including weakness and ballooning of the pointed tip of the heart. “It most often happens in older women, usually after menopause, but it can happen in men too,” Dr. Dianati-Maleki adds. “Symptoms can include sudden onset chest pain, shortness of breath or fainting.”

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While there are no known treatments to prevent broken heart syndrome, reducing stress and living a healthy lifestyle can help. “No one really knows if they are set up for this syndrome based on genetics, yet it is wise to learn stress management and problem solving techniques to help in physical or emotional stressful times,” says Nitin Bhatnager, DO, cardiologist in Greenfield Mass. “Daily habitual meditation practices, eating a nutritious diet, leading a healthy lifestyle, and remaining physically active and being fit play a role in calming the potentiality of inflammation in the blood vessels and keeping the mind in balance.”

The good news is that, in most cases, broken heart syndrome revolves itself within one to three months with appropriate treatments by a medical professional. However, if at any point you develop chest pain, it’s important that you call 911 or go to the hospital and not delay care. “Luckily, most cases of stress cardiomyopathy are reversible and resolve within two months of diagnosis,” says Jennifer Haythe, MD, an Associate Professor of Medicine and Co-director of Columbia Women’s Heart Center. “Treatment is supportive depending on the severity of the heart failure and can include medicines like beta blockers and ACE-inhibitors or more aggressive mechanical support with pumps and devices.”

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