From Romeo and Juliet to The Notebook, one of the most harrowing scenes in romance literature and films is the brokenhearted lament—but is there any truth to such experiences of heartbreak in real life? According to science, yes—evidence reveals that you can, indeed, have a broken heart.
Broken heart syndrome (BHS) or Takotsubo/stress-induced cardiomyopathy, was first described in 1990 in Japan by Doctors Hikaru Sato, H.Tateishi, and T.Uchida; recently it garnerned attention for being globally recognized as a real medical condition.
According to Nieca Goldberg, MD, Medical Director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at New York University Langone’s Medical Center and Spokesperson for the American Heart Association, symptoms are similar to an acute heart attack and include chest pains and shortness of breath. She adds, “Although these symptoms mimic that of a heart attack, in coronary angiograms, what doctors have discovered is that these individuals’ heart muscles have reduced function but their arteries are not obstructed—in heart attacks, they are blocked.”
And this condition can be found or manifested in situations of bereavement, not just heartbreak. “Hypothetically speaking, you could increase your chances of getting stress-induced cardiomyopathy in cases of losing a loved one, a change in job, moving, getting fired or breaking up with someone.”
No weary hearts here: Goldberg assures us that “Over a few months, the person’s heart function return to normal.”
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is an irregular heartbeat but it is not a form of BHS. Goldberg explains that it is a common arrhythmia (irregular beating of the heart—AF is a type of arrhythmia) for people older than 60, or people with high blood pressure. Obesity and previous heart attacks or heart failure can also increase the risk of developing AF.
It appears that having a broken heart is depicted as a rite of passage in experiencing love, affection and even lust. But the term and our understanding of it is misinformed. In fact, Goldberg clarifies: “A broken heart is not healthy. Furthermore, it is associated with people who have anxiety, depression, overeat, drink or smoke. These people are more susceptible to having broken heart syndrome.”
Goldberg says that research findings have shown that 90 percent of the people BHS occurs in are women. However, she cautions that we not leap to the conclusion that it is because women are more “emotional” creatures; Goldberg stresses that is a fallacy.
She explains: “Depression is twice as more common in women than men; in fact, stress and anxiety disorders are more common in females. However, I would avoid describing women as being more emotional.” Scientists are currently trying to understand this phenomenon. And although it remains unclear as to why BHS is found more in females, “emotional” is a term to be avoided because despite correlational findings, it does not prove causation. Moreover, there are too many negative connotations associated with the term.
“The first step is to make a diagnosis. If there is sustained chest pain or difficulty breathing, immediately head to your hospital’s emergency room.” Goldberg advises that doctors will be able to evaluate if the patient is experiencing a traditional heart attack or if it is Takotsubo syndrome with a coronary angiogram. After proper diagnosis, medical professionals will typically prescribe treatment in the form of beta-blocker therapy and ace inhibitors, medicines that protect heart muscle functioning.
Goldberg says that it is not out of the question. “...In films such as The Notebook? Yes, it could happen—dying from broken heart. Although it is plausible, it is not as dramatic in real life.” Again, it is dependent on the person’s physiology and how his or her body responds to forms of bereavement.
Photo by Edward Leung, CC-BY
Tiffany Leigh is a Toronto-based food, travel, and science writer.