Broken Heart Syndrome: A Real and Dangerous Condition
Within days after my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack at 55, my grieving grandmother suffered a heart attack herself. At the time, doctors told her children she had about six months to live. She was 90 when she died of a series of small strokes. She had never had another heart attack.
That was the start of a general familial disdain for doctors and their opinions, but recent studies suggest that we may have been wrong about the doom-saying physicians who treated my grandmother back in the 1950s. What they diagnosed as a heart attack may, in fact, have been something now known as broken heart syndrome.
The name sounds cute, but it's actually descriptive. It reflects something doctors have observed over time: People who've lost loved ones can develop a mysterious condition that mimics a heart attack. Acute emotion or trauma can trigger the release of a surge of the stress hormone adrenaline that simply stuns the heart. The left ventricle, which is the heart's main pumping chamber, is unable to contract and pump blood. It is, quite literally, a blow to the heart.
It is a heart attack -- just not one caused by blocked arteries or a blood clot. It's serious: It can kill you if you don't get help in time. But it doesn't leave lasting heart damage, and it may never happen again.
While relatively rare -- it happens in an estimated 1-2 percent of people diagnosed with a heart attack -- broken heart syndrome (aka stress cardiomyopathy) is about nine times more common among women than men. About 6 percent of women who are diagnosed with a heart attack actually have broken heart syndrome. And a recent Penn State University Hershey Medical Center study suggests a reason why: They found that emotional stress hurts women's hearts more than men's.
They tested their hypothesis using math questions, the usual stress provoker in stress-related studies. When women were stressed by mental arithmetic -- and badgering by the researchers -- a Doppler ultrasound test that measured blood flow through their hearts found they were more likely to have less blood flow to their hearts than men.
I talked to Dr. Chester Ray, lead study author and professor of medicine and cellular and molecular biology at Penn State, who explained that less blood flow meant less oxygen in the heart. And less oxygen means, well, we don't do well without it. But we especially don't do well without it when we're under stress.
"When your heart beats faster or your blood pressure is up, as it is when you're mentally stressed, your heart has to work harder and requires even more oxygen," he explained. "The only way to get more oxygen is to increase blood flow to the heart."
When the women in his study were grappling with subtracting the number seven from a series of random numbers -- just thinking about it makes my palms start sweating -- their coronary arteries were, to borrow an old Zen saying, pushing the river instead of going with the flow. They were restricting rather than opening up, stifling blood flow instead of increasing it.
"That response makes the heart more susceptible to problems, especially if the stress is chronic," says Ray.
The take-home message here? There's no way to avoid stress; it's as much as part of daily life as breathing. But it may help you to take a few deep breaths a few times a day. Studies have found that deep breathing -- from measured yogic breathing to a deep sigh -- can help you recover quicker from mental stress. Or work 10 minutes twice a day into your schedule for meditation; no mantra required -- just a mental break. Try it the next time you're balancing your checkbook.
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