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Middle-Aged Women at Higher Risk of ‘Broken Heart’ Syndrome

October 20, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
Middle-Aged Women at Higher Risk of ‘Broken Heart’ Syndrome
Heart normal echocardiography by Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator

LOS ANGELES – A new study from researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center appears to confirm what many have long argued: That a “broken heart” really can lead to long-term heart injury.

“We know from other studies the heart-brain connection is very strong, but this is one specific diagnostic condition where it’s inarguable,” said Susan Cheng, senior author of the study and the director of the Institute for Research on Healthy Aging in the Department of Cardiology at the Smidt Heart Institute, in a phone interview with The Well News. 

Broken heart syndrome, which is more clinically referred to as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, can cause the heart muscle to become weakened or stunned following any kind of emotional or physical distress, even a surprise birthday party, according to Cheng. 

An individual with broken heart syndrome usually will experience symptoms like chest pains and shortness of breath. The condition is typically diagnosed using a cardiac MRI, nuclear scan, or echocardiography, all imaging devices which allow physicians to see how the chambers of the heart are squeezing, and if the arteries are blocked, to rule out other conditions such as a heart attack. 

“When you see a moving heart and it’s not moving the way it should be, it means the heart muscle is weakened for some reason. It should not be moving with a weakened looking capacity, so you know there’s something going on,” Cheng said.

Although the condition can be cured using treatment like beta blockers to try and blunt the potential effects of the stress hormones and help with heart muscle function recovery, Cheng did point out that in the most rare and severe cases there have been deaths.

“In the short-term, the stunning is reversible, but the long-term consequences we are not completely sure of,” Cheng said.

Cheng and her research team used hospital data collected from more than 135,000 women and men diagnosed with Takotsubo syndrome from 2006-2017 to conduct the study. 

“When we started to look at the data from 2006- 2017 which is the last available year we had access to, we see that the rates are rising,” Cheng said. 

Not only have the rates of heartbreak syndrome been on the rise since 2006, which Cheng says may be due to the stress of the digitalization of work and non-work-related activities, but the findings revealed a disproportionate impact on middle-aged and older woman who are being diagnosed with broken heart syndrome 10 times more than younger women or men of any age.

“For the 50 to 74-year-old group, it is the perfect storm, where the heart has aged just enough and the stress response is still very robust,” Cheng said.

While these findings reveal how broken heart syndrome can impact individuals differently across gender and age, Cheng and other researchers are still in the process of collecting data to better understand the unknowns behind broken heart syndrome. Additionally, they are developing research registries, using hospital reports and blood samples to understand those who have developed the condition, have received treatment and recovered. 

Although, according to Cheng, the pandemic might pose a challenge as more people might have been reluctant to go to the hospital. 

“We might see a dip rather than a rise if many of these cases were diagnosed, if at all, outside of the hospital,” Cheng said. 

Alexa can be reached at [email protected].

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