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Broken heart syndrome: Unveiling the hidden link between emotional stress and heart health

Patients experience chest pain and shortness of breath, symptoms like those of a heart attack.

PHOENIX (Feb. 8, 2024) – Martha Castillo, a healthy and active Hispanic woman in her mid-sixties, faced an unimaginable tragedy in 2022 when she lost both of her beloved parents just two months apart. Stricken with grief and overwhelming sadness, Martha experienced a rapid decline in her physical and mental well-being. In a startling turn of events, she began suffering from chest pain and shortness of breath, leading her to believe she was having a heart attack. Martha's husband promptly rushed her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with broken heart syndrome.

Broken heart syndrome, also known as Takotsubo syndrome or stress-induced cardiomyopathy, is a real and documented medical condition. Triggered by physical or emotional stress, broken heart syndrome causes the heart's main pumping chamber to temporarily enlarge and pump poorly. Patients experience chest pain and shortness of breath, symptoms like those of a heart attack.

Reflecting on her experience, Martha Castillo says, “The pain and loss I endured after losing both of my parents within such a short period of time was tremendous. Little did I know that the sadness could physically affect my heart.”

“It is important for all patients to prioritize their heart health, which include modifying risk factors in lifestyle- diet, activity, and stress management” said Dr. Roderick Tung, cardiologist at Banner - University Medicine Heart Institute. “Our Hispanic patients are at greater risk for conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, atrial fibrillation, and heart failure. It is clear that women often have different clinical symptoms than men for the same heart condition. Broken heart syndrome is often attributable to severe emotional stress, which may cause spasm of the coronary arteries. This condition particularly emphasizes the important complex relationship between the heart and brain. Medical treatment is mostly supportive as the majority of patient recover on their own. The most important thing is to seek medical attention if you have any cardiac symptoms such as chest pain or difficulty breathing.”

According to the Heart American Association, on average, Hispanic women are likely to develop heart disease 10 years earlier than non-Hispanics, and only 1 in 3 Hispanic women are aware that heart disease is their number one killer.

How can doctors diagnose broken heart syndrome?

The symptoms of broken heart syndrome can look like a heart attack. With broken heart syndrome, an echocardiogram may show that the heart’s left ventricle is not working correctly, but the base of the heart is functioning normally. But even EKG and echocardiogram results can look similar in heart attacks and broken heart syndrome.

For this reason, doctors will usually perform another test called a cardiac catheterization to look for signs of heart disease or blocked blood vessels—those signs indicate a heart attack. If they are not present, the diagnosis is likely broken heart syndrome.

How can doctors treat broken heart syndrome?

If you have broken heart syndrome, you might not need treatment since your heart will recover on its own most of the time. But in most cases, a cardiologist will recommend medications such as beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors or angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) to help protect your heart.

To learn about your heart risk, take our free Heart Age Test.

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