Science Proves “Broken Heart” Syndrome

Science has proven that we can (and do) die from a broken heart. The medical term is Takotsubo cardiomyopathy – a condition that affects the heart muscle, giving the left ventricle a distinctive shape. It causes the heart to balloon and weaken and contract abnormally. The symptoms appear rapidly and are similar to those of a heart attack (shortness of breath, chest pain, arrhythmia). They are brought on by shock, stress or an emotional event, such as loss and bereavement. While broken heart syndrome can be temporary, with the heart muscle able to recover over days, weeks or months, for some who have the condition, there can be complications and even death. Broken heart syndrome affects around 2,500 people in the UK each year (I’ll add here of those that seek medical attention and receive the diagnosis – many grievers don’t go for medical help or attribute physical illness to grief). Numbers elsewhere in the world are unclear in accordance with the somewhat limited information available on the internet.

While early medical research on Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome dates back to 1991, it is the latest research published in the European Heart Journal and referenced in this UK news article that caught my interest (anything that links physical evidence to loss and grief always gets my attention). Researchers have found there is a connection between the brain and broken heart syndrome, which is really exciting news for the grief world.

Ever since reading the early work of Deepak Chopra (specifically his book Creating Health published 1987), I have believed there is a direct correlation between the brain, mind and heart. (Never did I suspect how critical this information would become to my own survival years later). Coming across this latest research that proves a direct correlation between the brain, mind and heart to broken heart syndrome, and further, connecting its symptoms to stress from loss and bereavement, is like music to my ears. It feels like validation for all grievers who say repeatedly that their heart feels like it has been broken after loss (myself included).

I’ve always felt frustrated trying to describe to people what “a broken heart” feels like. Understandably, it’s hard for people to imagine. Now, maybe it won’t be. With science able to explain and show what is physically happening to the “broken” heart through various imaging scans and tests, it may be easier for everyone to not only imagine, but accept broken heart syndrome as a real physical heart condition – as real as a heart attack. The difference is it can now be directly related to loss and bereavement. We don’t have to wonder anymore about whether our hearts break. They do.

For the masses and grievers themselves to start accepting that diseases and conditions are very real after loss, it may be easier to think of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy as another type of attack on the heart very similar to a heart attack, which we can all imagine. It’s just that Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome does not yet have the same widespread recognition culturally as heart attack, nor the widespread understanding of its connection to loss and bereavement.

What a wake-up call not only for grievers, but for all grief support communities – from medical professionals to the corporate board room – on how important the need is to further educate everyone on the debilitating effects of grief (this condition being only one of them). Only with knowledge can we begin to make the changes necessary to better support the grief community.

While the exact cause of broken heart syndrome is still unknown, researchers believe it may be linked to raised levels of stress hormones (i.e. adrenaline) after a shock or loss. (Note: you can expect to experience shock with any sudden death). Recent research showed brain scans of patients with broken heart syndrome displayed noticeably less communication between the regions of the brain involved with controlling emotions and unconscious or automatic body responses (such as heartbeat), compared to normal brains. Doctors quoted in this article state that because emotions are processed in the brain, but as none of the test subjects had their brains scanned before having the condition, they are left questioning whether broken heart syndrome originates in the brain or heart. Whatever the case, they are excited about future collaboration between neuroscientists and cardiologists that one day, may be able to answer this question.

It’s an interesting question for sure and my money (as a layperson) is on the brain. Here’s why. After the suicide of my daughter, for over five years I struggled with shortness of breath, heart and chest pains (my chest often felt like it was filled with millions of tiny fragments of glass). The symptoms, when acute, forced me to move slowly and even lie down or hang on for support when they were at their worst. They were eventually diagnosed by doctors as stress-related when I finally went for medical help. But, not having gone for a broken heart syndrome diagnosis (I’ve never heard of it until now), it is hard to say whether any real physical damage has been done to my heart over the years. It’s also unclear from what reading I have done, whether you can live with broken heart syndrome that goes undiagnosed and whether it can go away untreated.

What I can say, is that the moment I first learned of my child’s suicide, my brain flooded my body with adrenaline and sent other rapid-fire signals into my body that put me into fight or flight mode that has lasted for years (I was diagnosed with PTSD in 2014). I can only imagine that the connectivity path of communication in the brain regions described above was disrupted in many ways. I wasn’t myself then, nor have I gone back to my pre-existing state. It makes perfect sense to me that the brain is the centre of our life support systems and any shock, trauma and other intensely felt emotions that disrupt these regions impact our bodies accordingly.

Now, I’m no scientist, but just like when I was diagnosed with PTSD, which validated what I had suspected for years was a very real condition in grief, knowing that broken heart syndrome is also just as real feels like a huge relief to me. Our broken hearts from loss need to be taken seriously.

While not everyone who has experienced shock and loss will get Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (just like not everyone is vulnerable to PTSD), it is another piece of information for the wisdom tool box that could save a griever’s life. At minimum, any griever experiencing symptoms that may be heart-related should seek immediate medical attention in my view. Ask your doctor about the possibility of being tested for Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which if diagnosed can be successfully treated in most cases. Don’t be shy or feel awkward about asking for help about these very real diseases, syndromes and disorders that can and do affect the bereaved. It’s NOT your imagination. It really is in your mind, brain and body. Science says so.

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