Dying of a broken heart: Now researchers work out how the heart gives up under stress

Yes, you CAN die of a broken heart – and now we know how

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UPDATED:

14:52 GMT, 15 October 2012

It has long been claimed that people have died from a broken heart.

Now German researchers say they have identified how emotional trauma – from winning the lottery to losing a close relative – can trigger a potentially lethal catastrophe in the body they call the 'broken heart syndrome.'

Similar to a stroke or a massive coronary, broken heart syndrome causes the body to pour out adrenaline and other stress hormones.

Researchers say they have identified how emotional trauma - from winning the lottery to losing a close relative - can trigger a potentially lethal catastrophe in the body they call the 'broken heart syndrome'.

Researchers say they have identified how emotional trauma – from winning the lottery to losing a close relative – can trigger a potentially lethal catastrophe in the body they call the 'broken heart syndrome'.

This narrows the coronary arteries and impairs blood circulation. It also stuns the bottom half of the main pumping chamber of the heart, forcing the top portion to work much harder to compensate.

The lack of oxygenated blood reaching the rest of the body — and indeed the heart — causes breathlessness, pain and a loss of consciousness.

The patient can die as a result of cardiac arrest, causing the brain and body to be starved of oxygen.

Victims struggle to breathe, feel weak and have pains in the chest which are typical heart attack symptoms.

'These patients suffer under a heavy emotional load, either positive or negative and their hearts literally break, explained lead researcher Christoph Nienaber, director of cardiology at the University Clinic of Rostock.

He recently treated a 78-year-old woman who collapsed with the complaint, despite walking several miles a day and appearing fit and healthy.

He later discovered she had been involved in an ongoing dispute with her neighbours, causing her considerable stress.

Professor Nienaber said broken heart syndrome mostly affects women who have gone through the menopause

Professor Nienaber said broken heart syndrome mostly affects women who have gone through the menopause

‘It was believed for a long time that such a banal neighbourhood dispute could not have such an impact,’ said Professor Nienaber.

‘But the elderly suffering from a stressful situation for months find their resistance is weakened and it can have devastating consequences.' He added the affliction typically affects post-menopausal women between the ages of 50 and 70.

‘We are still unsure why it seems to affect this group the most,' he said. 'One theory is that the female body reacts especially strongly to stress hormones after menopause.’

Current figures suggest that about 2 per cent of the 300,000 'heart attacks' in the UK each year will actually be broken heart syndrome.

Doctors have long known the stress of a bereavement can trigger heart problems — studies have shown the risk of heart attack rises ten-fold in the 48 hours following the death of a loved one.

It’s previously been assumed that the patient already has an unhealthy heart as a result of bad diet or clogged arteries.

But scientists now say that a bereavement can trigger a specific type of heart attack very different from these ‘unhealthy’ heart attacks.

In August, Marcus Ringrose was sitting at his desk responding to letters of condolence about the death of his wife, when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

Just 12 days earlier the Doctor Who actress Mary Tamm, his beloved wife of 34 years, had died after a lengthy battle with cancer.

It seems the heartbreak of losing her proved too great, said Ms Tamm’s agent: ‘He adored her. If you can die of a broken heart, then that’s what he died of — his heart just gave out.’

Around one in ten patients with broken heart syndrome may have further episodes, but misdiagnosis could have meant they were not followed up and given appropriate advice and medication.