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A broken heart can really kill you

February 10, 2005 13:48 IST
Sudden emotional distress can sometimes produce symptoms of a severe heart attack, reports The New England Journal of Medicine.

Titled 'Broken Heart Syndrome', the study conducted by doctors at John Hopkins University found that sudden shocks, such as that caused by an unexpected death, 'can sometimes produce severe transient left ventricular dysfunction.'

Symptoms include chest pain, fluid in the lungs and breathlessness, and this often leads doctors to misdiagnose it as a heart attack.

However, unlike in a real heart attack, stress cardiomyopathy, as the condition is technically known, can be reversed and causes no permanent damage to the heart if treated correctly.  

The study involved 19 patients, mostly women above 60, who had admitted to hospital with classic symptoms of a heart attack.

'The median age of patients with stress cardiomyopathy was 63 years. Eighteen patients (95 percent) were women, of whom all but two were postmenopausal. News of an unexpected death precipitated cardiac dysfunction in about half the patients,' the study said.

Other triggers, said one report, 'included a surprise party, car accident, armed robbery, fierce argument, court appearance and fear of public speaking.'

'When you think about people who have died of 'a broken heart,' there are probably several ways that can happen,'  Dr Ilan Wittstein one of the authors of the study, was quoted as saying.

'A broken heart can kill you, and this may be one way.'

'Our hypothesis is that massive amounts of these stress hormones can go right to the heart and produce a stunning of the heart muscle that causes this temporary dysfunction resembling a heart attack,' he said. 'It doesn't kill the heart muscle like a typical heart attack, but it renders it helpless.'

'Emotional stress can precipitate severe, reversible left ventricular dysfunction in patients without coronary disease. Exaggerated sympathetic stimulation is probably central to the cause of this syndrome,' the study concluded.