Lewis Gale Physicians November 06, 2017

Stress management may reduce heart problems.

When a stroke claimed the life of actress Debbie Reynolds just a day after her daughter Carrie Fisher died, some doctors familiar with such cases agreed that "broken heart syndrome" might have played a role. According to Dr. Matthew Lorber, a psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, "Lots of times I hear a causal mention of someone dying of a 'broken heart,' but what many don't know is that 'broken heart syndrome' is a real medical condition."

A person with broken heart syndrome -- formally called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy -- usually has had recent emotional or physical stress, such as the death of a loved one or an asthma attack. This stress results in symptoms that are similar to a heart attack.

It is difficult to tell the difference between broken heart syndrome and a heart attack since both can have changes in electrocardiograms (EKGs) and blood tests. Doctors rely on other tests that allow them to look for left ventricle abnormalities that indicate broken heart syndrome. The syndrome causes the left ventricle to narrow and develop a rounded bottom. In addition, those with broken heart syndrome typically lack the coronary artery blockages associated with heart attacks. Broken heart syndrome is a temporary and reversible condition. The left ventricle will revert to its normal shape and function in days or weeks. It is uncommon for it to happen again.

Are Women at Higher Risk?

While the syndrome does occur in both genders, a recent literature review found that 90% of broken heart cases occur in postmenopausal women. The condition typically occurs in women who are aged 60 years and older. The reason why the condition occurs more in women is still uncertain. However, researchers think sex hormones may play a role.

Coping with Stress

We will all experience stress in our lives. Learning how to cope with stress, especially when it's unexpected may help you avoid problems. Mental Health America offers the following suggestions to cope:

  • Complete one task before moving on to the next one.
  • Be realistic about what you can accomplish.
  • Know that you will make mistakes and that it is okay.
  • Use your imagination to visualize yourself managing stressful situations.
  • Meditate for 5-10 minutes a day.
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day.
  • Participate in hobbies.
  • Get enough sleep, eat a healthful diet, and exercise.
  • Talk to family and friends.

As Dr. Sadip Pant, an internist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, says, “Broken heart syndrome is a perfect example of our brain-heart connection. The emotional stress we have in our brain can lead to responses in the heart, and not much is known about this condition."