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For many people, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been the cause of numerous stressors. But aside from lockdown restrictions, job losses and health-related problems, it's also been linked to an increase in broken hearts.
No, we’re not talking about break-ups, but a potentially life-threatening stress-induced heart condition called broken heart syndrome, which mimics symptoms of a heart attack.
In a recent study conducted by the Cleveland Clinic, cardiologists found that during the first two months of the pandemic (March 1- Apr. 30, 2020), 7.8 per cent of people who visited two Ohio hospitals complaining of chest pain were experiencing broken heart syndrome compared to the "pre-pandemic incidence" of 1.7 per cent.
What is broken heart syndrome?
Broken heart syndrome, also known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or stress cardiomyopathy, is a serious stress-induced condition that rapidly weakens the heart muscle. It occurs when a significant emotional or physical event causes a major adrenaline surge that can cause left ventricle dysfunction, impacting blood-flow to the rest of the heart.
According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, Takotsubo cardiomyopathy was first discovered in Japan in the 1990s and takes its name from Japanese octopus traps that are "shaped similarly to the heart of affected individuals."
The symptoms of broken heart syndrome resemble that of a heart attack, most commonly shortness of breath and chest pain, sweating and dizziness.
One woman, who was recently diagnosed with the condition, told ABC News it felt like her heart was “pounding” out of her chest and as though “the blood couldn’t get through the heart fast enough.”
Although the symptoms may be similar, heart attacks often occur due to blockages or clots in the coronary arteries and can cause scar tissue and irreversible damage to the heart. People who experience broken heart syndrome, however, tend to have "normal" coronary arteries, and in most cases won't experience scarring or damage.
However, there can still be long-term physical effects of the condition, including severe muscle weakness that can lead to congestive heart failure, low blood pressure and heart rhythm abnormalities that can be "potentially life-threatening."
In general, broken heart syndrome is more common among women, especially those who are 50 and older. Experts say it’s important to know what triggers the condition and what to watch out for.
What emotional or physical triggers can cause broken heart syndrome?
The emotional or physical stress, according to the American Heart Association, can be related to both sad and happy events, including the death of a loved one, a divorce or even winning the lottery.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic acting as a stressor for millions of people, it’s not surprising to see cases of broken heart syndrome go up.
“There was a lot of uncertainty and a lot of stress so in many ways this was kind of the most stressful time of the pandemic,” Dr. Grant Reed, director of Cleveland Clinic’s STEMI program and the senior author of the clinic’s study on broken heart syndrome tells Yahoo Canada. “We found a really big jump in the cases of broken heart syndrome.”
Reed says it's important to note that the increase of broken heart syndrome were a result of the pandemic and not of the virus itself. None of the patients with stress cardiomyopathy tested positive for the infection.
Why does broken heart syndrome affect more women than men?
A recent study at Cedars-Sinai found that broken heart syndrome has increased significantly among women, not just during the pandemic but prior to it as well.
Even though broken heart syndrome can happen to anyone, the American College of Cardiology reports that approximately 90 per cent of cases occur in postmenopausal women.
According to Reed, it’s still unclear why women are more commonly affected.
“There may be biological explanations such as the female heart may be more sensitive to surges in adrenaline and obviously there may be other risk factors, which predispose people to this in general, however that is not yet understood,” Reed adds.
Is broken heart syndrome fatal?
The good news is that most of the time, broken heart syndrome is treatable. According to Reed, the type of treatment and medication varies among patients and dependent on the “magnitude of the reduction in the heart function.”
Treatment options may include Beta blockers to slow the heart rate, ACE inhibitors to lower blood pressure and/or anti-anxiety medication to manage stress.
However, it's important to note that someone who has suffered from the condition once is at a higher risk of it happening again.
“Patients that have broken heart syndrome should be careful to control their anxiety and stress and try to remove any triggers that may have provoked it,” Reed explains during his interview with Yahoo Canada.
Take care of your mental health and pay attention to symptoms
It’s difficult to predict when a major event is going to happen, but doctors say taking care of your mental and physical health is key when it comes to preventing a heart condition like this one.
It's recommended to surround yourself with loved ones and to manage stress with practices like yoga, meditation and exercise.
“There’s not a great way of preventing it other than just I think try to live a happy and healthy life,” Reed advises. “If you notice yourself feeling sad or depressed, seek medical attention early because you may be at a slightly higher risk for stress cardiomyopathy if your baseline level of stress and anxiety is very high.”