Broken Heart Syndrome Is Real — And Thanks to COVID It's On The Rise

by Elaine Roth
Thoughtful young woman with curly hair lying in bed at home
Scary Mommy and Westend61/Getty

When I became a young widow, I read a statistic that told me my chances of dying within the next year were significantly higher than others my age. My first thought was a sarcastic of course they are. The universe was already piling on me, so why not add a higher rate of death? My second thought was, from what? (Because widowhood tends to give people a sense of humor and perspective that skirts the line between realistic and morbid).

The causes were varied—anything from health concerns to accidents, from things I could potentially control to things that spoke simply of bad luck and a raw deal from fate. But one of the reasons stuck out to me. It was “broken heart syndrome.”

I’d heard of people dying from broken hearts before. Just not real people. Literary characters, especially in dated romance novels, die of broken hearts all the time. (All the time might be an exaggeration here, but let’s go with it.) But as an actual physical ailment that could affect a flesh and blood human being, this was the first time I’d heard of it.

The Mayo Clinic defines “broken heart syndrome” as a “temporary heart condition that’s often brought on by stressful situations and extreme emotions. The condition can also be triggered by a serious physical illness or surgery. It may also be called stress cardiomyopathy, takotsubo cardiomyopathy or apical ballooning syndrome.”

The symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack—think chest pain and shortness of breath—and can include an irregular heartbeat, fainting, low blood pressure, and cardiogenic shock. But broken heart syndrome isn’t a heart attack. Whereas a heart attack is caused by a blockage or spasm in an artery cutting the heart off from its oxygen supply, “broken heart syndrome” is “thought to stem from a surge of hormones that impairs the ability of the heart muscle to pump.

Meaning, the cause—while not exactly known—is almost certainly not physical, not something that might show up easily and obviously on a diagnostic test.

I first learned about this syndrome in my quest to understand young widowhood. But, as it turns out, “broken heart syndrome” isn’t a condition that only affects widows or anyone grieving the loss of a loved one. It can affect people who are, say, living through a pandemic and unprecedented times of change. A study of 258 patients who came into the Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Akron General with acute coronary symptoms published in JAMA Open Network found that the incidence of “broken heart syndrome” is increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and more people are seeking treatment for cardiac issues. The study found that the incidence of broken heart syndrome spiked to 7.8%, which is up from 1.7% during pre-pandemic life. Patients also tended to stay in the hospital longer for this condition than they had before COVID-19 ripped apart normal as we know it.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about multiple levels of stress in people’s lives across the country and world. People are not only worried about themselves or their families becoming ill, they are dealing with economic and emotional issues, societal problems and potential loneliness and isolation,” said Ankur Kalra, M.D., a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist explains in a news release about the study. “The stress can have physical effects on our bodies and our hearts, as evidenced by the increasing diagnoses of stress cardiomyopathy we are experiencing.”

The good news is, “broken heart syndrome” can be treated easily with medications to lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate, and most people make a full recovery. (As it turns out, dated romance novels don’t always reflect reality—who knew?) Long-term complications and fatalities are rare events, and we can take steps to avoid this condition altogether. Self-care—true self-care—is critical. Dr. Grant Reed, M.D., M.Sc., director of Cleveland Clinic’s STEMI (ST-elevation myocardial infarction) program and senior author for the study, suggested this advice in a news release: “For those who feel overwhelmed by stress, it’s important to reach out to your healthcare provider. Exercise, meditation and connecting with family and friends, while maintaining physical distance and safety measures, can also help relieve anxiety.”

No one needs an extra reason to worry during this pandemic. Just turning on the news or opening your social media feed likely provides reasons enough throughout the day. And this isn’t a “here’s another reason you should panic” article. But it is a reminder to stop and check in with yourself. To tune in with your emotions, your thoughts and feelings. Because the mind and body are linked in ways we don’t yet completely understand. And sometimes the best thing we can do for our bodies is to pay attention to our minds and hearts and souls.