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Doctors see rise in cases of ‘broken heart syndrome’ amid pandemic

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (WDAF) — While COVID-19 cases are dropping around the country, doctors are seeing a rise in a different affliction: “broken heart syndrome.”

Health experts say it can be triggered by sudden stressful or emotional situations.

Many people might think broken heart syndrome only impacts people dealing with a bad break-up or those who are really sad, but this is a serious condition. And since the pandemic began, doctors have seen more cases.

“Broken heart syndrome is a condition where there is overwhelming stress on the heart, which we know our heart is this amazing muscle,” said Dr. Tracy Stevens, a cardiologist at Saint Luke’s Hospital in Missouri.

While it’s triggered by sudden, emotional stress, anger or fear, the pandemic is playing a role in the surge of cases.

“This pandemic has changed lives in such a deep way for so many. Of course, a big mechanism to deal with stress and grief is to be able to share with other people,” said Dr. Paramdeep Baweja, a cardiologist for Missouri’s University Health. “With that mechanism being so curtailed in the pandemic, people dealing with stress like this are only having a harder time.”

According to the American Heart Association, the “life-threatening condition” mimics a heart attack. Symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath are triggered when the heart’s primary pumping chamber temporarily enlarges and functions poorly.

“The mechanism of the broken heart syndrome is not definite, but it’s a postulated mechanism, that when someone goes through a big stressor in life, their hormonal activity, their nerve, nerve hormones are, are so ramped up, that they almost cause a toxic injury to the heart,” said Baweja.

Stevens concurred: “It’s a bombardment of the adrenaline to the heart where it transiently causes failure.”

So what makes a heart attack and a broken heart condition different?

“When we go into look at the arteries of the heart to see if there are any blockages — this is an angiogram a heart angiogram — we don’t find any conference; we don’t find any blockages,” Baweja said.

Cardiologists are finding it is more common in women, but the reason is unclear.

“It does seem to be much more common in women than men, 9 to 1. And the common findings we see it’s often postmenopausal women more so than pre-menopausal. And so the difference there is lack of the hormones we had prior to menopause,” Stevens said.

According to research published last fall in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the sharpest increases in broken heart syndrome cases were among women 50 and older.

The study analyzed 135,463 cases of the condition in U.S. hospitals from 2006 to 2017.

Although sufferers can often recover within days or weeks, some studies show people who have had the condition are at a greater risk for other cardiovascular maladies, the AHA says.

“So the majority recovered, that main pump comes back to its normal shape, normal function, the strength of the heart returns, but we need to follow that person closely,” Stevens said.

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