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


Research findings reflected in practice

Other cardiologists say they are not surprised by the new findings.

“I think it’s very consistent with what I am seeing clinically,” says Tracy Stevens, MD, a cardiologist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, MO. In the last 5 years, she has diagnosed at least 100 cases, she says. The increase is partly but not entirely due to increased awareness by doctors of the condition, she agrees.

If a postmenopausal woman comes to the hospital with chest pain, the condition is more likely now than in the past to be suspected, says Dr. Stevens, who’s also the medical director of the Muriel I. Kauffman Women’s Heart Center at Saint Luke’s. The octopus pot-like image is hard to miss.

“What we see at the base of the left ventricle is, it is squeezing like crazy, it is ballooning.”

“We probably see at least five to ten a month,” says Kevin Bybee, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine.

The increase in numbers found by the Los Angeles researchers may not even capture the true picture of how many people have gotten this condition, he says. He suspects some women whose deaths are blamed on sudden cardiac death might actually have had broken heart syndrome.

“I have always wondered how many don’t make it to the hospital.”

Dr. Bybee, who’s also medical director of cardiovascular services at St. Luke’s South in Overland Park, KS, became interested in the syndrome during his fellowship at Mayo Clinic when he diagnosed three patients in just 2 months. He and his team published the case histories of seven patients in 2004. Since then, many more reports have been published.

Researchers from Texas used the same national database as the Cedars researchers to look at cases from 2005 to 2014, and also found an increase. But study co-author Abhijeet Dhoble, MD, a cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at UT Health Science Center and Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston, believes more recognition explains most of the increase.

And the pandemic is now playing a role in driving up cases, he says.

“In the last 2 years, we have been noticing increasing numbers of cases, probably due to the pandemic,” he says.

Profiles of cases

Over the years, Dr. Bybee has collected information on what is happening before the heart begins to go haywire.

“Fifteen to twenty percent of the time, there is no obvious trigger,” he says.

Other times, a stressful emotional event, such as the death of a spouse or a severe car accident, can trigger it.

One patient with an extreme fear of public speaking had to give a talk in front of a large group when she was new to a job. Another woman lost money at a casino before it happened, Dr. Bybee says. Yet another patient took her dog out for a walk in the woods, and the dog got caught in a raccoon trap.

Fierce arguments as well as surprise parties have triggered the condition, Dr. Bybee says. Physical problems such as asthma or sepsis, a life-threatening complication of an infection, can also trigger broken heart.

“It’s challenging because this is unpredictable,” he says.

Next Article: