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Lourdes Cardiologist Explains “Broken Heart Syndrome”

When actress Debbie Reynolds died suddenly, just one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher passed away, many people speculated she died more of a broken heart than from a stroke. Mother and daughter were reportedly close, and they are just one example of close relatives, including twins and long-time spouses, who have died shortly after one another.

But is it possible to die from grief?  Yes, says a Lourdes cardiologist, however, it doesn’t happen often.

“Broken Heart Syndrome,” or stress-induced cardiomyopathy, is a condition in which intense emotional or physical stress can cause rapid and severe muscle weakness, explains Lourdes cardiologist Vivek Sailam, MD.

“Stress cardiomyopathy symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath and low blood pressure,” said Dr. Sailam. “Tests may show changes in rhythm and blood substances that are typical of a heart attack, but the arteries are not blocked.”

Dr. Sailam says that with stress-induced cardiomyopathy (sometimes referred to as Takasubo’s cardiomyopathy), a portion of the heart temporarily enlarges and stops pumping effectively. “The rest of the heart continues to function normally or even with more forceful contractions.”

As the syndrome involves severe heart weakness and abnormal heart rhythms, it can be fatal for some individuals. However, the condition often improves very quickly, and patients under the care of an experienced cardiac team can make a full recovery.

Experts believe that with stress-induced cardiomyopathy, the heart is overwhelmed with a large amount of adrenaline. The exact way adrenaline affects the heart is not clear. It may cause a narrowing of the arteries, leading to a temporary decrease in blood flow to the heart. Adrenaline also may bind to the heart cells, causing large amount of calcium to enter the cells and not function properly.

Unlike a heart attack, when heart cells die, the cells are only “stunned” by the adrenaline. This usually allows the heart to recover without permanent damage.

“Patients may experience arrhythmias, heart failure or cardiogenic shock—when a suddenly weakened heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs,” said Dr. Sailam. “All of these conditions can be fatal if not treated immediately.”

Debbie Reynolds suffered a massive stroke. Stress-induced cardiomyopathy can lead to a stroke as well, said Dr. Sailam.

“When the heart isn’t pumping effectively, blood inside of it can become stagnant and can clot,” said Dr. Sailam. “A clot that breaks loose can travel to a blood vessel in the brain and cause a stroke.”

Middle-aged and older women appear to be at greatest risk of stress-induced cardiomyopathy, though younger women and men can experience it as well.

Stress is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. To help manage your stress:

  • Maintain a positive attitude.
  • Accept you cannot control everything.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Take time out to relax, including practicing yoga, meditating, listening to music or doing something else you enjoy.
  • Eat well-balanced meals.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Talk to someone or seek help from a professional therapist.

While not everyone who has stress will experience stress-induced cardiomyopathy, Dr. Sailam says it’s important not to ignore its symptoms.

“If you’re experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath, inability to speak or move one side of your body, or any other possible symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, call 911 right away for immediate medical attention,” he said.

 

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