Recently, following the death of her daughter, actress / author Carrie Fisher due to a sudden heart attack, actress Debbie Reynolds passed away at age 84 — just one day after her child. Previously, Reynolds had suffered two strokes in 2015, but had recovered. The official cause of Reynolds’ death has not been revealed, although her surviving son, Todd Fisher, believes she died of a broken heart.
Is it possible to die from a broken heart? In rare cases, yes. Under its medical names — stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy — broken heart syndrome occurs suddenly as the result of high stress levels due to an immediate and traumatic life change.
What is Broken Heart Syndrome?
Broken heart syndrome causes a portion of the heart to temporarily enlarge, making it harder to effectively pump blood as the rest of the heart continues to function normally. While some of the symptoms of broken heart syndrome mirror those of a heart attack, the key difference is that no arteries are blocked with broken heart syndrome — just changes in the heart’s rhythm. According to the American Heart Association, it’s only recently that scientists and medical professionals are beginning to understand more about broken heart syndrome, what causes it, and how to treat it.
What Causes Broken Heart Syndrome? What Are Its Symptoms? Is It Fatal?
The exact cause of broken heart syndrome remains a mystery. However, it’s believed that a sudden surge of adrenaline, cortisol, and stress hormones can trigger an episode that temporarily narrows the arteries of the heart. While a heart attack is caused by a blockage in the arteries, with broken heart syndrome, it’s stress that narrows the arteries, causing chest pain, labored breathing, and low blood pressure.
There are a number of major life events that can trigger such an episode. Some of these include:
- The sudden death of a loved one
- Loss of a job
- Divorce, the end of a relationship, or romantic rejection
- An explosive argument
- Domestic abuse
- Reaction to news of a medical condition, accident, or surgery
- Reaction to drugs such as epinephrine (for allergic reactions), duloxetine (for treating diabetes and depression), venlafaxine (for depression), and levothyroxine (for treatment of thyroid ailments)
In most cases, broken heart syndrome is not fatal. Many people who experience this sudden condition often make a full recovery within a few weeks to two months. Broken heart syndrome can occur again if a person experiences another sudden, traumatic episode, however it’s rare that it becomes a repeated condition.
Who is Affected by Broken Heart Syndrome?
When it comes to broken heart syndrome, women are affected more often than men — particularly, older women. Of the 6,000 cases reported in the U.S. in 2007, 90% were women. Women over the age of 55 were shown to be three times more likely to experience broken heart syndrome than their younger counterparts or men of the same age.
A history of neurological conditions (such as head trauma or epilepsy), anxiety, or depression also puts a person at greater risk of broken heart syndrome.
How is Broken Heart Syndrome Treated?
More information is being discovered about diagnosing and treating this condition. To be sure you’ve experienced broken heart system and not a heart attack or other heart-related condition, your doctor will test you with a physical exam, blood tests, angiogram or electrocardiogram, blood tests, and/or chest x-rays.
From there, your doctor may prescribe stress management to you, or possibly beta blockers to reduce the levels of stress hormones that may be causing the issue. Once a person has made a full recovery, their doctor may stop prescribing the medications.
While more and more information is gradually emerging on this complex disease, arm yourself with what’s already known about broken heart syndrome. It may be difficult in the moment to tell an episode of this particular disorder from a heart attack, but in either case, call 911 immediately and get medical attention.