In 1990, Japanese physician Hikaro Sato wrote a thought-provoking paper describing an unusual set of sudden, life-threatening symptoms he and his colleagues were seeing in their patients. They included chest pain, shortness of breath, an elevated electrocardiogram and elevated cardiac enzyme levels. It looked very much like a heart attack. But when they delved deeper into what was going on, the doctors found that they were not signs of a heart attack and that their patients’ arteries were clear.
The condition was almost exclusive to women, and the women, as it happened, had recently undergone tremendous stress due to the loss of a loved one or other emotional event. In delving further into the mystery, they theorized that the left ventricle of the heart, which has the main responsibility for pumping, was weakened and mimicking the symptoms of a heart attack.
Sato dubbed the condition Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a name derived from an octopus trap due to the left ventricle’s shape, which has been described as similar to a kind of fishing pot in Japan that has a round bottom with a narrow neck that makes it difficult for a catch to escape. But since then, the illness has become more popularly known by a different name: “broken-heart syndrome.”
Researchers now accept that this condition is a real one and not just one of soap operas and myths. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine published in 2005 is among those that confirmed that a flood of stress hormones may be able to “stun” the heart to produce heart spasms in otherwise healthy people. Another in 2011 in the journal Coronary Artery Disease described how the condition appears to be more common in post-menopausal women and suggested that their lack of estrogen may make them more vulnerable.
In most patients, the symptoms go away after a few weeks, and they recovery fully. Others can face more serious complications, such as heart failure. Death is rare, but possible.
Over the years, doctors have documented numerous cases of pairs of husbands and wives and parents and children dying shortly after one another. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy may be partly to blame.
Earlier this month Trent and Dolores Winstead, a Nashville couple married for 63 years, died hours apart in the same hospital room.
This week, Carrie Fisher’s mother Debbie Reynolds died the day after her daughter. While little information has been released about the cause, numerous fans and friends of both actresses have gone online to comment that Reynolds may have died of a broken heart.
George Takei, best known for his role as Mr. Sulu on the series “Star Trek,” tweeted: “There is nothing harder than having to bury a child. Debbie died of a broken heart, but she’s with her daughter now.”