Yes Ladies, You Can Die From a Broken Heart

"Broken Heart Syndrome" , Stress and Women's Heart Health

After many hours and days of research, I have learned that stress can kill women easier than it can men. This is because women's bodies react to stress in a different way then men's do. No, I am NOT saying we are the "weaker" sex, lol! It has been documented in many medical studies that stress, which causes the body to release adrenaline and other hormones in large quantities, not only affects women much differently than it does men, but some studies suggest that women release more of these stress hormones than men. Especially post-menopausal women, for some as yet unknown reason. Doctors agree that even though several studies have been done that all come to the same conclusion, there is still much that they need to learn about this very subject. It suggests to me that emotions and physical health have more in common than we used to think, especially when it comes to women. Which brings me to say this-women definitely need to maintain a healthy balance in their lives from several viewpoints, and watch out for their emotional health as seriously as they do their physical health.

Originally documented in Japan back in the 1990's, as word has spread through the medical channels, the rest of the medical world has finally opened their eyes to this "mysterious phenomenon" (their words, not mine). It has never been "mysterious" to me, that women usually suffer much more intensely from emotional loss and stress than men do. It is just surprising to me that it has taken this long for the medical world to acknowledge it! I think one problem has been that doctors are so busy saving our lives, that they sometimes forget to inquire about what is actually going on in the life of the person they are saving! I can't blame the good doctors, because they have saved my own life in a big way-but it is coming to light that what applies to men, in matters of treating the heart, don't always apply to women. What used to be considered a "romantic folklore" of sorts (imagine the lovelorn starlet tearfully saying she was going to "die from a broken heart" after her lover leaves her for some reason) is an actual medical fact.

What people also don't always seem to understand or take into consideration when thinking about stress, is that the same process occurs in the body, whether the stress is related to  good news or bad! The release of the hormones and adrenaline hitting the heart suddenly are exactly the same. So that surprise birthday party you throw for Grandma could literally make her drop over dead, just like her losing a dear loved one could. My own father, who has heart disease, has told me this for years. It wasn't until I developed heart disease myself that I began to understand. All of those years, he had tried to explain to me that finding out something fantastic and great could be as taxing on his heart as finding out someone he loved was very ill or had passed away. I really began to "get it" when I had to take a nitroglycerin pill when my first granddaughter was born!

This syndrome has been documented to be almost completely confined to women, predominately those around their 60's, but has also been observed in women from the age of 20 all the way into their 80's. A large number of studies have been done, both in Japan and the US, including Johns Hopkins University and the Mayo Clinic, all with the same outcome. Sparing you all of the dry, clinical details, basically what happens is this:

A woman receives sudden really good or really bad news or even a sudden scare. Then, the adrenaline and other stress related hormones are released into her body. These hormones hit the heart all at once and basically "stun" the heart. (I have felt this happen. Most people would describe the feeling as "heartache"). When these hormones hit the heart, you can experience chest pain, shortness of breath and other symptoms that mimic an actual heart attack. When the person goes to the emergency room, EKG'S can reveal unusual patterns also. Heart enzymes, especially adrenaline and stress related hormones that have been examined when bloodwork is done have shown levels up to 34 times as high as normal. The thing I find the MOST interesting about this syndrome is that the heart actually changes in appearance, especially in the left ventricle! The medical term for this is Tako-Tsubo Syndrome, which is a Japanese term for a fishing pot that is used to catch octopus. According to what I read, a portion of the heart actually takes on this appearance for a time. A portion of the left ventricle balloons out, while another part of it narrows. If this happens in a person who already has a clot in the left ventricle, it could mean death or a very close call. Most of the studies I read said this problem sets in 6-12 hours after finding out the "news", or after the event that triggered it, and is completely reversible! What I have a hard time understanding is this-Why doesn't it happen immediately after the trigger? Oh well, the doctors don't know why either...

The really weird thing is that this can, and often does, happen to people (almost predominantly women) who have no prior or actual cardiac problems, and usually reverses itself completely within a couple of weeks, leaving no muscle damage or cardiac problems whatsoever afterward. It is usually treated with beta-blockers, diuretics, and rest, among other things. There have been instances though, where this could have been deadly, (and I believe at least one case I read about where it was), if medical care had not been sought. There are some instances where defibrillators, or the electric paddles have had to be used to shock the heart back into a normal rhythm. So, think what could easily happen to someone who already had heart disease. What most people don't take into consideration is that even good things can cause a certain amount of stress. In my case, and the others in my family who have heart disease, stress is almost always what sets off a heart related incident, although, we have also had our share of blood clots and heart attacks. Many people have heart attacks that are related to physical exertion. Not us. We can work our butts off, lift things, exert ourselves physically and get along okay as long as we don't get too tired or too hot or cold. But, those of us still alive who have heart disease, have all been warned by our cardiologists (and we all have different doctors) to try to protect ourselves from needless stress as much as we can-which is an extremely hard thing to do.

"Chronic Grief Syndrome" and "The Thousand Yard Stare"

"Chronic Grief Syndrome" is defined officially as this-"follows the end of a relationship and can be accompanied by emotional problems and mental illness. Can even lead to premature death". No kidding... What a detached way to sum up the feelings of say, a mother who has lost a child, a husband who has lost his wife, the end of a long and passionate love affair, the end of a loved career. I suppose there is a place for clinical terms, etc., but I also feel the world is turning more and more to clinical terms for emotions, political correctness when we want to scream out that we are scared as hell and don't know what to do, a robot-like existence when what we crave is human contact and love.

It's no wonder that we are beginning to hear about things like "Broken Heart Syndrome", "Chronic Grief Syndrome" and "The Thousand Yard Stare". This last term was originally used to describe the look in the eyes of soldiers who had faced the horrors of combat, and is associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This same look has now been seen in the eyes of people who have faced extreme horrors and indescribable conditions, such as the "Afghan Girl" whose photo on the front of National Geographic Magazine© captured so many people's attention (you can learn more about her on Wikipedia). I also think of it when I have seen footage or photos of the people held in concentration camps during WWII. To me, it it strikes me as the look of a cornered and scared animal-a person literally reduced down to their pure animal instincts in order to just survive. I saw this same look in the eyes of my own mother after she was violated in her nursing home. It broke my heart, and still does.

I don't know if I have educated you on anything you didn't already know, but I know I learned a lot researching these subjects! I have a tendency to go off on a personal tangent when writing, but that is because I write about things that mean a great deal to me. Heart disease is a very important topic to me if you read some of my other hubs, and any knowledge I can get out there will hopefully be helpful to others. I DO feel there is a link between the three major topics I covered here, and the fact that heart disease is the No. 1 Killer of women. If you know of someone suffering from any of the symptoms or problems I have described here or linked to, please encourage them to get some help. You could be saving their life!

To ask specific questions about Broken Heart Syndrome, you can send an email to:

brokenheart@jhmi.edu

Comments 1 comment

carolyn a. ridge profile image

carolyn a. ridge 5 years ago

Wow, this is a great article. I definitely agree that emotions and physical health have more in common than we think. In fact, I know for a fact that it does. (I'm a living testimony.) You know exactly what you speak about. Keep up the good work. Spread the word !!

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