Can You Really Die From a Broken Heart?


Dying of a “broken heart” may sound like it’s coming from the pages of a book, but it is possible. You might associate a broken heart with mental health, but it can take its toll physically as well. This is known as “broken heart syndrome.” It is brought on by stressful circumstances, like the death of a loved one. Cardiologist Tim Martin, MD, UnityPoint Health says it needs proper diagnosis and treatment just like any other cardiovascular diagnosis.

What is “Broken Heart Syndrome?”

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), broken heart syndrome, or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is a reaction your heart has to a surge of stress hormones caused by an emotionally stressful event. Broken heart syndrome causes the heart to stop operating normally, resulting in heart failure. During these situations, the body releases an increase of hormones, which temporarily paralyzes your heart and limits its standard functionality.

“This syndrome is unique in that it can develop in anyone, even someone who is healthy by all other standards,” Dr. Martin says.

The following are examples of high-stress situations that might trigger broken heart syndrome.

  • Death of a loved one
  • Bankruptcy
  • Being fired from a job
  • Public speaking
  • Divorce
  • Terminal medical diagnosis

Broken Heart Syndrome Symptoms

Those suffering from broken heart syndrome experience a sudden pain in their chest and shortness of breath, which is why many mistake it for a heart attack. Heart attacks cause complete blockage of the arteries to the chest, while broken heart syndrome causes arteries to slow blood flow.

“If you experience any level of chest pain, you need to call 911 and seek care immediately. While chest pain doesn’t always mean a heart attack, or something like broken heart syndrome, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” Dr. Martin says.

Who’s at Higher Risk of Broken Heart Syndrome?

While broken heart syndrome can affect anyone regardless of age, gender and lifestyle, it is far more widespread in women than men. Postmenopausal women are also more likely to develop broken heart syndrome.

Studies also show abnormal thyroid levels can increase the risk of broken heart syndrome. Compared to women with levels in the low to normal range, those with a high free T4 level were twice as likely to be diagnosed with the syndrome in the year following their blood test. The risk is also twice as likely for men.

Free T4 is a blood test that measures thyroxine — a hormone produced by the thyroid that plays a crucial role in regulating the body’s metabolism. People who suffer from hyperthyroidism have high levels of the hormone.

Broken Heart Syndrome Treatment

Dr. Martin says the symptoms of broken heart syndrome are almost always treatable. In most cases, full recovery happens within weeks. Most patients who suffer from broken heart syndrome only stay in the hospital for a brief stay.

“Once providers make sure a patient isn’t experiencing a heart attack or other heart-related event, they can identify if feeling brokenhearted might be contributing. If a patient is diagnosed with broken heart syndrome, symptoms can be treated with medicine to help blood flow, prevent blood clots and help control blood pressure,” Dr. Martin says.

Can I Prevent Broken Heart Syndrome?

To prevent broken heart syndrome, the main focus is on stress relief. Dr. Martin encourages everyone to reduce or manage stress, as much as possible.

Several ways to keep your stress levels in check:

  • Maintain regular exercise
  • Reduce caffeine intake
  • Get adequate sleep
  • Avoid alcohol consumption
  • Remember to breathe

Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about stress and/or your heart.