When actor Debbie Reynolds passed away just a day after her actor-daughter Carrie Fisher in 2016, many claimed she died of a broken heart. Was that just a Hollywood story? Or is such a thing actually possible? Increasingly, the research suggests that it is.
‘Broken heart syndrome’ is the term often used to describe sudden heart problems after stress. Many assume it to be a simple manifestation of grief or stress as a general feeling of unwellness. But broken heart syndrome is now recognised as a genuine medical condition, in which the heart actually swells with blood when the major chamber’s pump fails.
Though broken heart syndrome is a temporary ailment, the consequences can be serious – even deadly – because that temporary weakening of the pumping muscle can lead to cardiac arrest.
This pump failure and consequential ballooning of the chamber appears to be triggered by a stressful event.
Stress can be triggered in many ways, and news of the sudden loss or serious illness of a close friend or relative is very much one of those ways. A 2008 study into broken heart syndrome featured four cases, where in each case onset occurred in the hours or days after hearing such news.
Ms Reynolds’ official cause of death just a day after daughter Carrie Fisher passed away was intracerebral haemorrhage (sudden bleeding into the brain), but hypertension (high blood pressure) was identified a contributing factor, so it’s possible some of the factors of broken heart syndrome were at play.
Difficulty in identifying the mechanisms involved in the onset of broken heart syndrome is one of the reasons for its slow acceptance as a genuine condition. However, in recent years the medical fraternity has taken the syndrome more seriously.
In the medical world, broken heart syndrome is known as stress cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (TCM), the latter term the result of the condition’s original identification by specialists in Japan.
The Japanese term ‘Tako tsubo’ means ‘octopus pot’, which is a fishing jar with a narrow neck and wide base used to trap octopus. Its shape is not unlike the shape of the heart’s left ventricle when it suffers from the ballooning effect associated with the syndrome.
It was in Japan that broken heart syndrome was first described in medical literature. Remarkably, although that description dates to 1990, the condition has gained recognition in Australia only in the past 15 years.
This slow uptake of acceptance is likely related to a lack of research into the condition and a lack of understanding of its cause or causes. The research that has been done has identified a hormonal release in response to stress as a possible culprit.
Most of the literature on the syndrome published so far points towards neurohormones called catecholamines. But this research remains speculative at the moment. Other possible causes proposed include multivessel coronary artery spasm (a temporary tightening of the muscles in the walls of multiple arteries) and impaired cardiac microvascular function, which in simple terms is ‘inappropriate coronary blood flow’.
Can you die of a broken heart? The answer appears to be yes, although much more research is required to explain it fully. While death is rarely the result of TCM, it can be a serious condition, so if you have symptoms of a heart attack after a shock loss or other stressful event, you would be well advised not to ignore them.
Have you experienced anything like broken heart syndrome? Did you see a medical specialist? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?