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Yes, You Can Die from a Broken Heart

Comstock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- It’s hard to imagine someone getting to adulthood without experiencing the pain of a broken heart.  It’s all part of living life and forming relationships.

As painful as these experiences are, with a little bit of time, most people get over them.  But is it possible to die from a broken heart?

Unfortunately, it is.

There is actually something called broken heart syndrome, the name for sudden heart failure that comes on after emotional trauma.  It was first recognized by Japanese doctors in the 1990s who named it takotsubo cardiomyopathy after noting a resemblance between a Japanese octopus trap, a takotsubo, and the shape of the affected heart on X-ray.

Fortunately, the condition is quite rare.  It’s almost exclusively seen in postmenopausal women.  And while the symptoms are similar to a heart attack -- 1 to 2 percent of people who are diagnosed with a heart attack are really suffering from the broken heart syndrome -- what’s happening to the heart is quite different.

During a heart attack, the heart muscle is cut off from its supply of oxygen, either from a blockage or a spasm in one of the arteries that supplies blood.  Broken heart syndrome, on the other hand, is thought to stem from a surge of hormones that impairs the ability of the heart muscle to pump.

Many stressors can trigger the syndrome, according to a 2005 study by Johns Hopkins Hospital researchers published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  Some stressors were related to sadness, but not all.  Indeed, one person was struck down after being startled by their own surprise birthday party.

It’s unclear why middle-aged women are at the greatest risk.  One possibility relates to differences in hormone levels.

The good news is that unlike a heart attack, broken heart syndrome is rarely fatal and most people make a full recovery.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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