(CBS/AP) Think "broken heart" is just a figure of speech? Think again. A new study shows that severe emotional distress, such as the kind experienced after a breakup or the death of a loved one, can cause what doctors call "broken heart syndrome" - especially in women. Women are seven to nine times more likely to suffer from the condition than men, the study found.
People with the syndrome experience heart failure or heart attack-like symptoms. The condition usually resolves within weeks, with no lasting damage - but in rare cases it proves fatal.
Japanese doctors first recognized the condition around 1990. They nicknamed it "Takotsubo cardiomyopathy" - tako tsubo are octopus traps that resemble the unusual pot-like shape of the stricken heart.
The classic case is "a woman who has just lost her husband," said Dr. Mariell Jessup, a University of Pennsylvania heart specialist who has treated many cases of the syndrome.
Cyndy Bizon feared the loss of her husband, Joel, when he suffered a massive heart attack in 2005. The Maine woman collapsed at a nurse's station as her husband was wheeled past her into the operating room. After joining him in coronary care, both Bizon and her husband survived.
Why does broken heart syndrome occur? A big emotional shock - even a good one, like winning the lottery - triggers a rush of adrenaline and other stress hormones that cause the heart's main pumping chamber to balloon. Tests show dramatic changes in rhythm and blood substances typical of a heart attack but none of the artery blockages that typically cause one.
"I was very curious why only women were having this," said Dr. Abhishek Dehmukh of the University of Arkansas, who had treated many cases. So he did the first large study of the problem. Using a federal database of about 1,000 hospitals, Deshmukh found 6,229 cases in 2007. Only 671 involved men. After adjusting for high blood pressure, smoking and other factors that can affect heart problems, women were found to be 7.5 times more likely to suffer the syndrome than men.
It was three times more common in women over 55 than in younger women. And women younger than 55 were 9.5 times more likely to suffer it than men of that age.
No one knows why, said Dr. Abhiram Prasad, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist. One theory is that hormones play a role. Men may be able to handle stress better because they have more adrenaline receptors in their hearts than women do, Deshmukh said.
About 10 percent of victims will have a second episode sometime in their lives. And although heart attacks happen more in winter, broken heart syndrome is more common in summer.
The study was described Wednesday at an American Heart Association conference in Florida.
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