Broken heart syndrome is on the rise.
That’s according to a new study in JAMA Network Open that found 7.8% of Cleveland Clinic patients presenting with symptoms of a heart attack in March and April had the condition, also known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy — up from 1.7% prior to the coronavirus.
“It’s about a four- to five-time increase,” says Grant Reed, MD, MSc, the senior author of the study. “If you extrapolate that over an entire country, there’s going to be many more patients coming in with this.”
Takotsubo — which can feel like a heart attack — is known to strike people after the death of a child or spouse, hence the nickname “broken heart syndrome.” But people have also experienced stress-induced cardiomyopathy after surgery, public speaking, being held at gunpoint, the death of a pet, claustrophobia in an MRI machine, and even eating too much wasabi. Now, research suggests the stress of the pandemic is pushing some people’s hearts to the breaking point.
“This is obviously an unprecedented event that people are dealing with in very different and very personal ways,” Reed says. “People are losing their jobs. People are going through really profound social isolation. And there’s a lot of uncertainty.”
That stress can hurt your heart may seem like common sense. In 2005, when cardiologist Ilan Wittstein and his colleagues brought the condition to the masses in the New England Journal of Medicine, the authors wrote that the “potentially lethal consequences of emotional stress are deeply rooted in folk wisdom, as reflected by phrases such as ‘scared to death’ and ‘a broken heart.’”
But it’s taken some time for medicine to catch up. As doctors learn more about Takotsubo cardiomyopathy and other examples of stress’s profound effect on the body, like the true extent of racism’s impact on health and how the fight or flight response really can turn hair white overnight, they’ve started to develop new strategies to help survivors cope.
“This is obviously an unprecedented event that people…