A small, new study has found that sudden emotional stress can cause heart failure in mostly healthy older women. The condition is known as stress cardiomyopathy. Some people call it broken heart syndrome. That is because often the emotional stress is caused by sadness. But, it also can be the result of fear, anger or shock.
Although stress cardiomyopathy is not a heart attack, experts say the condition can be mistaken for one. A heart attack happens when a blood clot or other blockage in the coronary arteries cuts off blood flow to the heart. This can kill heart muscle cells and cause heart muscle to die. Some signs of heart attack include crushing chest pain, shortness of breath, fluid in the lungs, and heart failure.
A person with stress cardiomyopathy has similar symptoms. But the problem is caused by a weakening of the heart that decreases its ability to pump blood. It is a temporary condition. Unlike a heart attack, there is no lasting damage to the heart muscle after treatment. And most patients fully recover very quickly.
A group of Japanese doctors first recognized broken heart syndrome in the nineteen-nineties. But this is the first time researchers have identified the condition in the United States. Ilan Wittstein led a team of researchers at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The researchers studied nineteen people who had been treated at the hospital for signs of a heart attack between nineteen ninety-nine and two thousand three. All but one of the people were women.
The average age of the patients was sixty-three. All of the patients had experienced a sudden stressful event just before suffering heart failure. These events included a car accident, robbery and the death of a loved one. All the patients survived the heart failure. But, the researchers say some would have died without treatment.
Researchers say some people react to extreme emotional events by releasing very high levels of the stress-related hormone adrenaline and other chemicals. They say these chemicals weaken the heart muscle, making it temporarily unable to pump blood.
The people in the study had adrenaline levels that were between seven and thirty-four times higher than normal. But when their level of stress eased, their hearts began pumping normally again.
Doctor Wittstein says it is important that doctors be able to tell the difference between a heart attack and stress cardiomyopathy. He says as more doctors recognize the condition, they will learn how to treat it. He says this will help people avoid unnecessary medical operations and having to take heart medicines for long periods of time.