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You Really Can Be Scared to Death

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Here's something to keep in mind this Halloween: A good scare can kill you -- even if you're perfectly healthy.

If a shock to the system is sufficient enough it can trigger a massive surge of adrenaline, stunning your heart so severely it ceases to beat.

Consider the case of a 60-year-old woman who was given terrible news about her husband's health.  As she and her husband left the doctor's office, a tightness suddenly gripped her chest and she was unable to breathe.  Lucky for her, she was standing right outside the office of cardiologist Dr. Holly Anderson when it happened.

"After I had whisked her off to the emergency room and hooked her up to an EKG, I was surprised to see her whole heart had stopped moving, yet she had perfect blood supply to the heart," recalled Anderson, who is also the director of education and outreach at the Perelman Heart Institute at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City.  "She was so emotionally overwhelmed about her husband's condition it literally stopped her heart."

Women, particularly older women, are far more susceptible to dying of fright, also known as the "broken heart syndrome."  They account for about 90 percent of reported cases, according to Dr. Martin Samuels, chairman of the neurology department at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

He said postmenopausal women are at risk mainly because they no longer enjoy the known cardio-protective benefits of estrogen.

Experts estimate that about 1 percent of men and 7 percent of women with suspected heart attacks have stress cardiomyopathy instead.

And it is more common than thought.  Samuels said the average sudden death in any major city is about one per day.  Studies show this number goes up slightly for about a week after a catastrophic event such as an earthquake or a terrorist attack and may increase on days that have a negative cultural significance, such as Friday the 13th.

"I don't believe there are any studies showing that Halloween falls into this category," Samuels said.

This type of abrupt cardiac event goes by several names.  Technically it's referred to by medical experts as stress cardiomyopathy because it usually occurs immediately following an intense emotional event.  When the syndrome was first identified by Japanese scientists in 1990, they dubbed it "takotsubo syndrome," after the strange balloon shape resembling a Japanese octopus trap the heart takes on when it occurs.  Here in the U.S. it's usually known as "broken heart syndrome" because it often strikes after the victim has received gut wrenching news, such as the death of a loved one.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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