You're 5 Times More Likely to Get "Broken Heart Syndrome" If You've Done This

This surprising factor quintuples your risk of a serious heart condition.

In literature and film, emotional tragedy is often portrayed as a form of near death experience. Now experts are pointing to one coronary condition that highlights just how dangerous a sudden emotional trauma can really be. Researchers call this "stress cardiomyopathy," or more colloquially, "broken heart syndrome" (BHS). They warn that any sudden shock—from a death, to a breakup, or even acute anxiety over more everyday challenges—can cause a serious heart health problem.

However, not everyone is at equal risk, and in fact, some people are five times more likely to develop the dangerous condition. Read on to find out which factor may make you more susceptible to broken heart syndrome, and why it can be such a serious threat to your heart health.

RELATED: If You Notice This While Resting Your Feet, Get Your Heart Checked.

Strong, sudden emotions can cause "broken heart syndrome."

older woman sits on bench clutching chest, what your indigestion means

Most of the time, if your heart health takes a sudden turn for the worse, there's an underlying physical cause. However, in some patients, that trigger is an emotional one. Grief, anger, fear, and shock are some of the most common culprits. According to a 2005 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, these sudden emotional stressors can result in "myocardial stunning"—a sudden weakening of the heart muscles resulting from acute ischemia, or reduced blood flow to the organ.

In many patients with broken heart syndrome, the left ventricle—the heart's main pumping chamber—can expand, sometimes triggering heart failure. This can change the physical shape of the heart into an oval, a shape wholly inefficient at pumping as it should.

Mary Brittingham, a former law professor at Georgetown Law School, told CNN that she experienced three episodes of broken heart syndrome at the ages of 53, 56 and 69. Each was caused by a different emotional trigger: anxiety, anger, and fear, respectively. "My cardiac enzymes were high, so they did an image, and I had gone into heart failure," she recalled of her first cardiac episode. "My father died of heart failure at the age of 36. So I thought 'Oh man, this is it.' But it turned out I didn't have a heart attack or heart failure, I had broken heart syndrome."

RELATED: If You Notice This While Lying on Your Back, Get Your Heart Checked.

If you're a woman over 55, you're more likely to develop broken heart syndrome.

aged woman having heart attack. Woman is clutching her chest, acute pain possible heart attack. Heart disease. People with heart problem concept

According to the Cleveland Clinic, roughly 88 percent of people with broken heart syndrome are women. Notably, these patients are most often postmenopausal women, who's estrogen levels are in steep decline.

Ilan Wittstein, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine and co-author of the 2005 study, recently explained to CNN that this is significant because low estrogen levels can affect the blood vessels. "When you actually inject estrogen down a blood vessel, the blood vessel dilates, gets bigger. So estrogen is a very important mediator of how blood vessels function in women," he said. "In fact, studies have shown that your risk for broken heart syndrome goes up fivefold after the age of 55 if you're a woman."

Here's why it happens.

Senior woman talking to doctor

Though researchers are still investigating the full range of causes for broken heart syndrome, they've got some promising leads. "We think it has to do with a dysfunction in the body's fight or flight response, the release of chemicals such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine the body uses to prepare us to flee or stand and fight," says Wittstein. "With broken heart syndrome we think the rush of adrenaline is causing little tiny blood vessels in the heart to constrict instead of dilate and temporarily reduce the amount of blood that's getting to the heart," he adds.

Wittstein says that one of the biggest revelations in his research is how subjective, and sometimes small, the emotional trauma can be while still causing coronary symptoms. "It's odd, when we first started describing this, we thought it had to be triggered by a massive tragedy, like the death of a loved one or a near-fatal car accident," he said. "What we've seen over the years is that that's actually not true. Some of the triggers can seem fairly mild."

Look out for the symptoms of broken heart syndrome.

Doctor listening to patient's heartbeat

Some symptoms of broken heart syndrome may appear similar to a heart attack—for instance, sweating, chest pain, and shortness of breath. However, follow up tests often reveal a very different prognosis for those with BHS. CNN reports that "unlike a heart attack, which is typically caused by blocked arteries, these early patients had 'pristine, normal coronary arteries,' with little or no evidence of cholesterol and plaque." The heart muscles were unusually quick to recover following a heart episode, returning to normal function within weeks or even days.

"In the early years we were just astounded at how fast we would see the hearts perk up again. It's almost like they were waking up," said Wittstein. "I remember people that were sent to our center because they thought they would need a heart transplant. And a week later they're at home," he added.

Still, you should never dismiss potentially serious cardiac symptoms, or assume they will resolve on their own. Call 911 immediately if you notice signs of broken heart syndrome, and especially if you suspect a heart attack.

RELATED: The 3 Signs Your Chest Pain Isn't a Heart Attack, Experts Say.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
Filed Under