“Doctoring her seemed to her as absurd as putting together the pieces of a broken vase. Her heart was broken. Why would they try to cure her with pills and powders?” Leo Tolstoy, writing about Kitty’s heartbreak over Vronsky in Anna Karenina
Sometimes people say that a spouse who dies unexpectedly within hours to weeks after the partner’s death has “died of a broken heart,” though a variety of different medical conditions are responsible for the increased death rate among grieving partners, who are often elderly. In 1990 a paper appeared in the Japanese medical literature that described a peculiar heart problem, documented by modern technology, that the popular press seized upon as a possible explanation for the correlation between grief or fright or other emotional stress and sudden, unexpected death. The cardiomyopathy the authors described was an abnormality in the heart muscle of the left ventricle, the chamber of the heart that pumps blood out to the body. That part of the heart acted as if it had been “stunned” into inactivity and caused pain and other symptoms commonly associated with heart attacks, but the patients did not have any coronary artery disease. These facts seemed fit neatly into the concept of a “broken heart.”
Why an octopus trap?
The ventriculograms, or dye studies, of the hearts of the Japanese patients described in the 1990 paper showed peculiarly dilated left ventricles, ballooned at their tips so that they resembled octopus traps – narrow-necked, flask-shaped contraptions that are easy for the tentacled animals to enter but hard to escape. In the Japanese language an octopus trap is a takot-subo and by the mid-2000s the name Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or TCM, was widespread and many more cases had been described. Risk factors for the stress-induced cardiomyopathy were both physical and mental and included stays in ICUs, near drownings, major physical injuries, bad medical or financial news, legal problems and natural disasters, and, of course, unexpected death of a loved one. Cases have also been attributed to cocaine and methamphetamine use, as well as to exercise stress testing. These patients who acted as if they had had a heart attack were most often women and they had no history of heart problems prior to the events that hospitalized them.
Who is at risk? What are the symptoms?
Takotsubo syndrome is not common, but also not rare. It accounts for 1-2% people who have symptoms initially thought to be caused by regular coronary artery disease. In women, some people estimate that as many as 5% of heart attacks are actually TCM. Most TCM patients are Asians or Caucasian, over 90% are post-menopausal women and most cases come to attention because of heart attack-like symptoms such as acute chest pain and shortness of breath. But unusual presentations also occur as a result of the effects of the poor heart muscle function. When it’s pump action fails, the heart sends hormonal signals that affect water and salt balance in the body. Fluid retention occurs in some people. Low sodium levels cause symptoms of profound fatigue in others. Clots may form in the poorly contracting ventricle, break loose and cause strokes. Lethal complications such as ventricular fibrillation and actual rupture of the impaired ventricle are very rare, but have occurred.
What’s the cause?
Diagnosis of Takotsubo syndrome requires new abnormalities in the electrocardiogram, absence of coronary artery disease and no evidence of heart inflammation from an infection or autoimmune disease. While the enzyme markers for a heart attack may rise, they do so earlier and fall back to normal more quickly than they do in a routine heart attack. In addition, the muscle abnormalities in the left ventricle can’t be mapped to the territory supplied by one coronary artery as they can when a blockage is responsible for the damage. Doctors who make a TCM diagnosis must also make certain the patient does not have a tumor called a pheochromocytoma, which produces stress hormones.
Most patients recover completely
By now TCM is known to be transient, with supportive care leading to complete recovery within 1-2 months in over 95%of patients. Recurrence is extremely rare. However, the actual cause, or mechanism by which the transient heart damage occurs, remains unknown. A number of theories have been proposed and all of them have something to do with a temporary derangement in function of the cells of the inside layer of cells of the left ventricular chamber of the heart. In these cells normal energy production from fatty acids is halted. The area of the heart involved happens to have a high concentration of receptors for catecholamines (adrenaline like hormones), perhaps making it susceptible to overstimulation and damage by severe stress. The high preponderance of postmenopausal women in case reports suggests that perhaps sex hormones are somehow protective factors.
Do people really die from broken hearts?
But is the Takotsubo syndrome responsible for deaths that seem to come from emotionally broken hearts? The mortality rate in cases of Takotsubo syndrome that come to medical attention is low. Recovery rates are high. Broken heart deaths most often occur in older people who have multiple health problems which might play a role. For example, when singer/actress Debbie Fisher died as she was planning her daughter Carrie Fisher’s funeral this year, a NYT reporter speculated about the cause of death being the Takotsubo syndrome. But Debbie Fisher had suffered several strokes in recent years and had high blood pressure. Later stories attributed her death to a fatal stroke related to high blood pressure.
Grief and stress do raise the risks of dying for the bereaved, but the causes of death are many and varied and mostly related to longstanding health problems. The pills and powders Kitty scorned for her broken heart in Anna Karenina have a place in the treatment of the many other problems that occur in the setting of grief, especially depression. While it is tempting to attribute sudden, unexpected deaths in emotionally stressed people to an odd and mysterious heart problem named after an octopus trap, science requires objectivity and evidence. So far the evidence about sick hearts that resemble octopus traps suggests that, at least in the people in whom the diagnosis is made, death is a very rare outcome and complete recovery is the rule.