Broken heart syndrome: on the rise, especially in women 50-74


As a pediatric kidney doctor, Elaine S. Kamil, MD, is used to long hours helping children and teens with a variety of issues, some very serious, and also makes time to give back to her specialty.

In late 2013, she was in Washington, D.C., planning a meeting of the American Society of Nephrology. When the organizers decided at the last minute that another session was needed, she stayed late, putting it together. Then she hopped on a plane and returned home to Los Angeles on a Saturday night.

Right after midnight, Dr. Kamil knew something was wrong.

“I had really severe chest pain,” she says. “I have reflux, and I know what that feels like. This was much more intense. It really hurt.” She debated: “Should I wake up my husband?”

Soon, the pain got so bad, she had to.

At the hospital, an electrocardiogram was slightly abnormal, as was a blood test that measures damage to the heart. Next, she got an angiogram, an imaging technique to visualize the heart. Once doctors looked at the image on the screen during the angiogram, they knew the diagnosis: Broken heart syndrome, known medically as takotsubo cardiomyopathy or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. As the name suggests, it’s triggered by extreme stress or loss.

The common symptoms are chest pain that can seem to come from a heart attack, shortness of breath, and fainting. The telltale clue to the diagnosis is the appearance of the walls of the heart’s left ventricle, its main pumping chamber. When the condition is present, the left ventricle changes shape, developing a narrow neck and a round bottom, resembling an octopus pot called takotsubo used by fishermen in Japan, where the condition was first recognized in 1990.

Like most who are affected, Dr. Kamil, now 74, is fine now. She is still actively working, as a researcher and professor emerita at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and a health sciences clinical professor of pediatrics at UCLA. But she focuses more now on stress reduction.

Study: condition on the rise

New research from Cedars-Sinai suggests that broken heart syndrome, while still not common, is not as rare as once thought. And it’s on the rise, especially among middle-age and older women.

This ‘’middle” group – women ages 50 to 74 – had the greatest rate of increase over the years studied, 2006-2017, says Susan Cheng, MD, lead author of the study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. She is the director of the Institute for Research on Healthy Aging at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Dr. Cheng and her team used national hospital inpatient data collected from more than 135,000 men and women diagnosed with the condition during the 12 years of the study. More than 88% of all cases were women, especially in those age 50 or older. When the researchers looked more closely, they found the diagnosis has been increasing at least 6 to 10 times more rapidly for women in the 50-to-74 age group than in any other group.

For every case of the condition in younger women, or in men of all age groups, the researchers found an additional 10 cases for middle-aged women and six additional cases for older women. For example, while the syndrome occurred in 15 younger women per million per year, it occurred in 128 middle aged women per year.

The age groups found most at risk was surprising, says Dr. Cheng, who expected the risk would be highest in the oldest age group of women, those over 75.

While doctors are more aware of the condition now, “it’s not just the increased recognition,” she says. “There is something going on” driving the continual increase. It probably has something to do with environmental changes, she says.

Hormones and hormonal differences between men and women aren’t the whole story either, she says. Her team will study it further, hoping eventually to find who might be more likely to get the condition by talking to those who have had it and collecting clues. “There probably is some underlying genetic predisposition,” she says.

“The neural hormones that drive the flight-or-fight response (such as adrenaline) are definitely elevated,” she says. “The brain and the heart are talking to each other.”

Experts say these surging stress hormones essentially “stun” the heart, affecting how it functions. The question is, what makes women particularly more susceptible to being excessively triggered when exposed to stress? That is unclear, Dr. Cheng says.

While the condition is a frightening experience, ‘’the overall prognosis is much better than having a garden-variety heart attack,” she says.

But researchers are still figuring out long-term outcomes, and she can’t tell patients if they are likely to have another episode.


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