For Midlife Women, Heartbreak Can Be Literal—But Possibly Reversible

Broken-heart syndrome

Image: Taketsubo cardiomyopathy, aka broken-heart syndrome, involves the ballooning of the left ventricle of the heart.

A divorce, the death of a loved one or the loss of your home in a devastating hurricane could break your heart. Literally! Broken-heart syndrome is for reals, and it occurs most frequently in women in their 50s and beyond. The condition is often temporary and won’t necessarily kill you—but it can, according to researchers at Harvard Medical School.

Broken-heart syndrome is most often triggered by other physical conditions, such as lung problems or injections, but the next most common cause is emotional shock. Formerly considered to be a temporary, reversible condition, new research has found the syndrome to be as deadly as “traditional” heart attacks.

Broken-heart syndrome actually has a fancy name: Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, aka stress cardiomyopathy. It can feel a lot like a heart attack—pain, shortness of breath—but you won’t find any clogged arteries. Instead, your cardiologist will see that the bottom-left side of your heart has ballooned into the shape of a tako-tsubo, which is a fishing pot for trapping octopus.

No one knows the precise cause-and-effect associated with Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Some experts theorize that surging stress hormones, like adrenaline, stun the heart and the left ventricle (chamber) forgets it’s supposed to contract regularly.

Although Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is different from a heart attack caused by blocked arteries or a blood clot, the treatments are similar. You might need drugs to reduce blood pressure or to remove fluid from the lungs—a common side-effect of poor heart function—or blood thinners to prevent dangerous blood clots and strokes. Worst-case scenario, you’ll need a ventilator or heart pump to keep the old ticker going until your body calms down.

But it’s yet another health risk for midlife women. Women are more likely to be carrying multiple burdens at midlife, whether caring for an aging parent, a growing child, a demanding job—and all that stress adds if a serious life loss occurs. Also, women married to men are more likely to outlive their spouses, and loss of a spouse is exactly the kind of shock that can harm the heart.

And, women are more likely than men to suffer from depression, as we noted back in May 2017. That’s another heart risk for women that may or may not contribute to Takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

If you’ve recently suffered a major losses or a combination of losses, pay attention to your pain around your chest and torso. When you feel that your heart is breaking, it might be ballooning like an octopus trap instead.

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