The very real dangers of a broken heart

Being broken hearted is more than heartache over loss or grief; it can have serious health consequences.

Stress cardiomyopathy, also called broken heart syndrome, is triggered by traumatic or highly worrying events – and it seems to affect some people, but not others.

“The relationship between emotional wellbeing, mental health and heart health is complex, with long- and short-term impacts,” says Heart Foundation chief medical adviser and cardiologist Professor Garry Jennings.

What is broken heart syndrome?

“In stress cardiomyopathy, a very stressful event causes a part of the heart to change shape and become larger, such that it is unable to pump properly (usually transiently),” explains Prof Jennings.

“In the short-term, acute physical and emotional distress can have transient physical impacts on the heart.

“This can include increased blood pressure, changes in hormone levels in the blood and changes in the way the nervous system acts on the heart.”

Whether it’s the death of a loved one, an accident, a relationship break-up or a job loss, a stressful event can have serious health repercussions.

Yet while we all experience stress at some point, we won’t all get stress cardiomyopathy.

Who is most at risk of broken heart syndrome?

The risk factors for stress cardiomyopathy are still being investigated, but Prof Jennings says it occurs more frequently in post-menopausal women.

“There is some evidence to suggest that this is linked to reducing levels of the hormone oestrogen,” he says.

A recent study found stress cardiomyopathy has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic – likely as a result of economic stress related to the virus, rather than the virus itself.

Signs of broken heart syndrome

Stress cardiomyopathy can have similar symptoms to a heart attack.

“Due to the similarities in presentation, people should be aware of the warning signs of a heart attack, such as chest pain or discomfort and shortness of breath, says Prof Jennings.

Don’t second guess yourself if you think you may be having a heart attack – call 000 immediately.

Stress cardiomyopathy is diagnosed based on imaging, such as an echocardiogram, to look for characteristic changes to the appearance and structure of the heart.

How to look after your heart

“There are many ways people can reduce stress and look after their hearts,” says general practitioner Dr Su-Yin Yeong.

“These include relaxation strategies, mindfulness, yoga and deep breathing.”

“The term ‘broken heart syndrome’ may imply that the effects are permanent, or that once it happens there is nothing that can be done, which isn’t true,” says Prof Jennings.

“Many people who experience stress cardiomyopathy will recover over the course of a few days, although it can be a more serious event for others.

“Medications can be used to treat some of the complications (such as heart failure or abnormal heart rhythms) if needed.”

Dr Yeong suggests if you’re struggling with stress or grief, reach out for support, whether from a professional, friends or family.

“Grieving is a natural part of life,” she says. “See your GP if you’re worried your response to grief is more pronounced than it should be.”

More tips for dealing with stress

Written by Samantha Allemann