Severe physical or emotional stress can result in broken heart syndrome. Picture: 5SECOND/123RF
Severe physical or emotional stress can result in broken heart syndrome. Picture: 5SECOND/123RF

Can a person really die from a broken heart? If they suffer from “broken heart syndrome” then perhaps, yes.

A recent article by The Telegraph didn’t over-exaggerate in reporting that a 93-year-old woman had died from broken heart syndrome. After surviving a burglary in her home, Betty Munroe’s health deteriorated and she started suffering from sickness, shaking and nightmares. She was subsequently diagnosed with broken heart syndrome and died in hospital shortly thereafter.

Broken heart syndrome, scientifically known as stress cardiomyopathy, takotsubo cardiomyopathy or apical ballooning syndrome, is a condition in which severe physical or emotional stress can result in severe muscle weakness, or cardiomyopathy.

But what exactly causes broken heart syndrome? According to information provided on the Mayo Clinic’s website, it is believed a surge of stress hormones such as adrenalin, often released after an event that resulted in intense physical or emotional stress, can temporarily damage certain people’s hearts.

According to Barbara Kobson, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, research on the topic is ongoing. She told The Telegraph, “Researchers are trying to understand the interaction between the heart muscle and emotional signals in the brain. One theory is that exposure to an emotionally traumatic event causes a surge of adrenalin at levels that are harmful to the heart.”

Kobson says this may trigger a person’s immune system, which results in acute inflammation in the heart muscle. In the process, the heart’s primary pumping chamber weakens and is unable to pump blood efficiently.

In the case of Munroe, the trauma she experienced following the burglary was enough to cause the onset of broken heart syndrome. For other people, it can be the loss of a loved one, emotional stress from a divorce or job loss, receiving bad news such as a terminal medical diagnosis or even physical stressors such as a car accident or major surgery — the list isn’t bound to one specific cause.

While the causes may be vast, symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack and may include dizziness, chest pains, sweating, nausea and vomiting, weakness and shortness of breath.

Broken heart syndrome can be fatal, but for those who survive the prognosis appears to be good: the heart will return to normal after a few weeks with no permanent damage. Time, it seems, truly does heal all wounds.