Mythbusting Monday 22 July: Can You Die of a Broken Heart?

Welcome to another Mythbusting Monday. This week we’re tackling this headline:

“Broken Heart Syndrome and Cancer Are Connected, Scientists Say”

So the question is, can you actually die of a broken heart?

When we experience stress such as heartbreak of grief, we know that there is a physical reaction that can cause a number of physical issues, such as:

💔 Lower thyroid hormone level

💔 Activating of clotting in our blood, making it sticky

💔 High blood pressure

💔 Disrupting plaques in our arteries

💔 Cortisol and adrenaline let glucose and fat stores out

💔 The immune system runs unchecked which may lead to disease

💔 Higher heart rate

💔 Reduced heart rate variability

💔 Electrical instability of the heart

💔 Behaviour changes: poor sleep, not exercising, using drugs or alcohol, eating poorly

For most of us, despite the fact that there is a physical component to our emotional turmoil, we will be absolutely okay. There are a few circumstances when grief or stress can actually lead to serious physical illness.

Why do old people die close to one another?

Generally when we hear of a couple ‘dying of a broken heart’ close to each other, they tend to be elderly people perhaps who have underlying medical issues. All of those physical changes above can be weathered if we are otherwise fit and healthy, but that disruption to your body if you’re not can be problematic. In elderly people, we know that they have an increased risk of dying after losing their partner which persists for a few months.

What is broken heart syndrome?

Broken heart syndrome is also known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. In this illness, which isn’t very common, following an emotional shock, people turn up to hospital with symptoms that look like a heart attack. However, when we look at the heart arteries they are pristine and they haven’t had a heart attack. Instead, the heart muscle doesn’t pump well and it looks like a Japanese fishing pot which is where the term ‘takotsubo’ first came from.

As I mentioned it’s rare. It tends to happen most commonly in post-menopausal women, who receive an emotional shock. It’s rare in men, and if it does happen in men, it is more likely due to a physical shock. Women aren’t all delicate; the reason is probably due to the effects of loss of oestrogen.

The risks of takotsubo cardiomyopathy include heart failure, rhythm problems, leaking heart valves and recurrence. That being said, the risks of that is generally low and most people recover well with medical therapy only. In rare cases, people can actually die of a broken heart.

What is the link with cancer?

In all of the news articles, they’re referring to this study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. In the study, they looked at a registry of people who had had takotsubo and determined who had cancer. They found that 16.6% of patients who had takotsubo had also had cancer. Of those who had cancer and also takotsubo, they were more likely to be older than those without it and more likely to have had a physical trigger than an emotional one. This suggests that there may be a link between the two illnesses, factors that we don’t know about. It may also mean (although we need more info) that we should have a good look at anyone who has takotsubo to assess their cancer risk.

Want to read more? Click here to see where you can order a copy of Can You Die of a Broken Heart? to read all things heart related.