A new study funded by the British Heart Foundation has concluded that the shock of a tragic event can impact heart health in lasting ways, mimicking the long-term effects of a heart attack. In other words, my middle school self was right: You can die of a broken heart.
The sorts of traumatic events that can trigger these adverse reactions include the death of a pet or a bad breakup. Who knew that all those melodramatic Morrissey songs were actually rooted in hard medical science?
The condition, known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is commonly referred to as “broken heart syndrome.” In the wake of a traumatic episode, the heart can temporarily cease its normal function, resulting in low blood pressure and even heart failure. The scary part is you don’t need a history of heart disease or a bunch of preexisting risk factors to be impacted. If enough external stresses pile up, Takotsubo cardiomyopathy can strike perfectly healthy — but very sad — people.
Consider the case of Joanie Simpson, a healthy Texas woman in her early 60s. Her son was about to have surgery, her son-in-law had just been laid off, she was in the midst of a protracted property negotiation, and then, to top it all off, her beloved terrier passed away. She woke up one morning in 2016 with the symptoms of a heart attack. At the hospital, she was diagnosed with broken heart syndrome. The compound effect of these stressful issues hit Simpson hard, which makes sense given her age: Women between the ages of 58 and 75 are the most at-risk group due to their diminishing levels of estrogen, an essential ingredient for heart health.
Regardless of your demographic, this news should serve as a wake up call. Although it’s rarely fatal and can be fixed if treated quickly, the long term effects of broken heart syndrome are far more dangerous than previously thought. Stress can have tangible, physiological consequences, namely lasting damage to your most vital organs. Deep breaths, everyone.
In the British Heart Foundation study, researchers at the University of Aberdeen monitored 37 Takotsubo patients for two years using ultrasounds and MRIs. The conventional wisdom that broken heart syndrome was merely an unpleasant, temporary affliction was flipped on its head: The patients had untreatable tissue damage that prevented the heart from pumping to its full capacity. This represents a new challenge in the fight for heart health, as there is currently no long-term solution for broken heart syndrome. The study clearly ignored my go-to treatments: Häagen-Dazs and rebound sex.
So, what should you do to stave off broken heart syndrome? Buy a lifetime supply of estrogen pills? Stay in a bad relationship to avoid the pain of a breakup? Donate your pet to a shelter so you don’t have to watch it die? Sure, if you feel like it. But what you should really do is learn to deal with your stress, even if you’re young and healthy. Resilience in the face of adversity is the best way to keep your heart pumping smoothly well into old age.
Don’t worry, you can still listen to Morrissey. He would never break our hearts, right?