By: Jean Johnson for Heart1
Wesley Smith smiled when he thought of the long stem Ecuadorian red roses he planned to put into his mother’s arms when he walked through the door. But after he heard about the broken heart syndrome Smith decided to skip the surprise and call ahead and tell his 73-year-old mother that he would be in town for Valentine’s Day.
Indeed, the old adages scared to death and died of a broken heart, seem to have more basis in scientific fact than the old wives’ expressions have been given credit for.
A well meaning family threw a surprise party for a woman on her sixtieth birthday. “Seventy people jumped out from the dark and screamed, ‘Surprise!’ and literally three hours later she was in the intensive care unit,” Dr. Illan S. Wittstein, cardiologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said. Wittstein was the lead author of an article in the New England Journal of Medicine on what he terms “myocardial stunning due to sudden emotional stress.”
Cardiologists have dubbed the newly identified condition the broken heart syndrome although as the surprise party example indicates, stress need not necessarily be negative. Still, worry over missing a child’s wedding, armed robbery, an unexpected death in the family, and a car accident were among the precipitating events in the 18 women and one man studied for the article. Thus Wittstein concluded that any sudden emotional stress whether from shock, fear, anger, or grief, can stun the heart into what he terms “severe transient ventricular dysfunction.” He also noted that while most of the patients he saw were in their early sixties, one was 27 and the other was 32.
Symptoms range from just feeling ill for a few hours to chest pain and difficulty breathing that sends patients to emergency rooms. Although death could have resulted, all the patients recovered and their hearts showed no lasting damage. Also, at least in the 19 individuals seen by Wittstein, one episode does not lead to further attacks.
The fight or flight response produced by a rush of adrenalin and other stress-related hormones somehow breaks down in individuals suffering from the broken heart syndrome and the heart is overwhelmed. That’s why some physicians advise building stress management regimes into one’s daily workout.
“Prevention is the key with heart health,” said Dr. Noel Bairey-Metz, medical director of the Women’s Health Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Stress management can alter nerve endings to the heart in a beneficial way.” In particular, yoga or meditation on a daily basis, Bairey-Metz advised, are effective ways to increase the body’s ability to deal with life’s inevitable emotional stresses.
While Wesley Smith has quit smoking, eats a heart healthy diet, exercises, and meditates daily, he notes that his mother is from another era. “They didn’t talk about prevention as much when mom was younger, and she’s a little on the heavy side,” Smith said. “Anyway, now that I know about this broken heart problem, I’ll call ahead so she’s expecting me. I want our Valentine’s visit to be full of roses and chocolate, not emergency rooms.”