“It’s a very much female-dominant condition,” he said. “We don’t know why that is.”
While it can be fatal, many people recover from it, he added.
First recognized in 1990 by Japanese researchers, they originally dubbed the condition “Takotsubo cardiomyopathy.”
Takotsubo is the Japanese word for a pot used to trap octopus. When injured, the heart resembles this pot, according to photos taken while the organ is still beating, Sharkey explained. Cardiomyopathy refers to a disease that affects the heart muscle. The trauma experienced by subjects studied in Japan was caused by earthquakes and other natural disasters — not the loss of a spouse.
The term “broken heart syndrome” first surfaced in a 1998 study in the journal Circulation. It was based on the case of a 70-year-old woman whose husband of 45 years died suddenly. She then came down with a sudden heart condition when told of her husband’s death. Doctors referred to her condition as “broken heart,” Sharkey said.
She survived, and so did the term.
People are most vulnerable to the condition within the first 24 hours of experiencing sudden and major trauma, Sharkey said. The body unleashes a torrent of stress hormones that cause the heart to beat much faster.
“It’s a helpful thing if you’re trying to run away from a dinosaur,” Sharkey said, “but if you get too much adrenaline, it will harm your heart. That’s what we think is happening. The body is automatically releasing this hormone that is temporarily injuring your heart muscle.”
The loss of any loved one — a child or even a beloved pet — can induce broken heart syndrome, doctors say. But it occurs most often among senior citizens.
It’s possible for younger people to be afflicted, but it’s less likely to kill them because younger hearts aren’t as vulnerable to cardiac arrest and can recover, Sharkey said.
Such sweet sorrow
In Murray’s experience of treating older couples, she’s seen instances where the emotion and attachment is so strong that they can’t bear to go on without their deceased partner. Under stress, certain chemicals in the body stimulate the heart to pump harder than it needs to, sometimes causing the heart to fail, she said. But even before that happens, Murray said, some couples find the strength to hang on as long as their partner is still alive.
That’s what Richard “Dick” Felumlee figures happened with his parents.
Kenneth and Helen Felumlee, 92 and 91 respectively, were sweethearts since the day they met as teenagers.
Married for 70 years, the Ohio couple ate breakfast together every day while holding hands until their final moments, Felumlee said.
In recent years, they both had serious health problems. “I know they were kind of both holding on for each other. Dad, within the last week before he passed, had told a couple people who had come to visit, ‘I’m hanging in there for Helen. I don’t want her to be alone.’ ”
Helen died on April 12. Fifteen and a half hours later, Kenneth slipped away, too.
“When we told Dad that Mom had passed, he shook his head like he acknowledged it,” Felumlee recalled. “Then he kind of looked at us kids and said, ‘Helen’s gone.’