Have you ever heard of older couples who die within a short span of each other? People often say the second person to go died of a broken heart. But did they really, truly die of a broken heart? Maybe. Maybe not. The truth of the matter is, broken heart syndrome is a real thing, and no one is immune to it.
You may not be surprised to learn that broken heart syndrome is typically brought on by intense emotional or physical stress. And it can feel just like a heart attack.
The difference? Well, in layman's terms, when someone experiences a heart attack, it is generally due to a complete or near-complete blockage of a heart artery.
In broken heart syndrome, no arteries are blocked, but blood flow in the heart arteries might be reduced. Experts say one theory is that adrenaline causes the arteries in the heart to narrow enough that they cut off blood flow to the muscle.
The syndrome can temporarily make part of your heart larger, affecting how your heart pumps blood, which causes the symptoms.
Additionally, the syndrome can lead to other complications, such as low blood pressure, disruptions in your heartbeat, a backup of fluid into the lungs and even heart failure, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Having said all that, it should be known that even though broken heart syndrome can be fatal, that outcome is very rare. In fact, most people who experience broken heart syndrome recover quickly and do not have long-lasting effects.
Still, how do you know if you’re at risk or if what you’re experiencing is actually broken heart syndrome?
First of all, the syndrome often comes after something physically intense or an extremely emotional event. And while experts say the cause of the syndrome is unclear, some things that have been documented as being potential triggers are:
- The death of a loved one.
- Job loss.
- Domestic abuse.
- Stressors to the body, such as an asthma attack, car accident or major surgery.
That’s not all. There are known risk factors for the syndrome:
- Most people who have the syndrome are older than 50.
- Women are more likely to be affected.
- Those who have neurological disorders -- think epilepsy or a history of head injury -- are likely to be affected.
- People who have suffered from anxiety or depression are likely at higher risk of broken heart syndrome.
The Mayo Clinic says there are some drugs that may cause the syndrome by causing a surge of stress hormones. Those include:
- Epinephrine, which is used to treat severe allergic reactions or asthma attacks.
- Duloxetine (Cymbalta), which is used to treat depression and nerve problems in people with diabetes.
- Venlafaxine (Effexor), which is also used to treat depression.
- Levothyroxine (Synthroid, Levoxyl), which is given to people whose thyroid glands don’t work properly.
As with most things, there are symptoms that can mimic other problems. Experts say the most important thing is that, because it can feel like a heart attack, you should always call 911. Even if it is broken heart syndrome, some of the symptoms could still be life-threatening, so it is always important to seek medical attention.