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Broken heart syndrome on the rise for women over 50, study finds

When our heart is broken – a bad breakup, the death of a loved one, etc. – we often actually feel pain in our chest. It’s as if our heart is actually broken. As it turns out, we can actually feel symptoms similar to those of a heart attack during these times, without the clogged arteries. It is known as broken heart syndrome and it is becoming a problem – especially middle-aged and older women.

What Is Broken Heart Syndrome

Broken Heart Syndrome, or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, occurs during times of grief. With this syndrome, the heart actually changes shape due to the extreme stress that the grief has caused. It causes chest pain and the symptoms of a heart attack but without the clogged arteries. The group most affected by this condition are women between the ages of 50 and 74 years old.

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Between 2006 and 2017, doctors recorded 135,463 cases in the United States. The annual incidence of the condition has been increasing steadily in both sexes, however, it is more prevalent in perimenopausal women. In fact, doctors saw the condition in 10 times more perimenopausal women than in any other age group. A group of researchers recently published their findings on this condition. (1)

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“There is something potentially going on around the perimenopausal period such that just beyond 50 and up until age 74, there’s this window of opportunity for the condition to develop in women,” explained the study’s lead author Dr. Susan Cheng to TODAY. “Their heart is vulnerable.” (2)

Why Does It Happen?

The exact reasons why this happens, and specifically at a higher rate in this demographic, is not yet known. That being said, the symptoms are very treatable and usually resolve themselves in just a few days. The researchers do believe that there is something about female biology that puts women at higher risk. Still, it’s more about stress hormones, so the sex hormones playing a role is not a sure-fire bullseye. (3)

Dr. Cheng says that it is clear that there is some sort of brain-heart connection. They know that risk factors like smoking and lifestyle factors increase your risk of developing heart disease. Broken Heart Syndrome, however, shows that any kind of stress – physical, environmental, or emotional – can trigger the actual cardiac event. Grief caused by a death, divorce, cancer diagnosis, job loss, surgery, severe pain, and more can cause this physical and emotional stress. There’s something about the life stage of perimenopausal women that makes them feel this emotional stress more acutely.

Read: People who eat some cheese, yogurt, or chocolate every day have a lower risk of heart disease, study finds

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The Symptoms of Broken Heart Syndrome

The symptoms of Broken Heart Syndrome mimic those of an actual heart attack. The most common two symptoms are chest pain and shortness of breath. Often, the condition comes after extreme grief or trauma. These potential triggers include (4):

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  • The death of a loved one
  • A scary medical diagnosis
  • Domestic abuse
  • Losing or winning a large sum of money
  • Intense arguments
  • A surprise party
  • Public speaking
  • Job loss 
  • Financial struggles
  • Divorce
  • Physical stress (asthma attack, COVID-19 infection, a broken bone, major surgery)
  • Certain drugs:
    • Epinephrine
    • Duloxetine (Cymbalta)
    • Venlafaxine 
    • Levothyroxine
    • Unprescribed or illegal stimulants (meth or cocaine)

If you are a woman, particularly in your perimenopausal years (roughly between 50 and 74), you are at greater risk. A history of neurological disorders, such as a head injury or epilepsy, also increases your risk. Finally, mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, make you more vulnerable as well. It is rarely fatal, however, it can cause longer-term complications. These include pulmonary edema, hypotension, heartbeat disruptions, and even heart failure.

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Treatment and Prevention

Most people who experience one episode don’t experience it again. However, there are certain treatments and medications that doctors can prescribe that treat broken heart syndrome. Naturally, if you are experiencing chest pains, especially prolonged episodes, you should go to the emergency room immediately. You could, after all, be having a heart attack.

If you have recently experienced trauma or grief, seeking out counseling is a good idea. Licensed therapists and counselors can help you work through your grief and give you healthy coping mechanisms. This can help avoid the extreme stress that brings on Broken Heart Condition. Remember, you do not need to go through grief alone. Talk to a loved one, close friend, or a licensed professional. Your physical, mental, and emotional health will be better off in the long term.

Keep Reading: Drinking coffee may cut risk of chronic liver disease, study suggests

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Sources

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  1. Sex‐ and Age‐Based Temporal Trends in Takotsubo Syndrome Incidence in the United States.” AHA Journals. Varun K. Pattisapu, et al. October 13, 2021.
  2. Broken heart syndrome on the rise for women over 50, study finds.” Today. A. Pawlowski. November 11, 2021.
  3. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (broken-heart syndrome).” Harvard. January 29, 2020.
  4. Broken heart syndrome.” Mayo Clinic 
Julie Hambleton
Freelance Writer
Julie Hambleton has a BSc in Food and Nutrition from the Western University, Canada, is a former certified personal trainer and a competitive runner. Julie loves food, culture, and health, and enjoys sharing her knowledge to help others make positive changes and live healthier lives.
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