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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

What You Should Know About Broken Heart Syndrome


The term "broken heart" is usually just a figure of speech. However, the emotional pain or loss involved can contribute to a potentially serious physical condition called Broken Heart Syndrome.

Highlights from the interview with Dr. Juzar Lokhandwala, an interventional cardiologist at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital:

What is broken heart syndrome? It’s something that was described about 15 years ago in women, post-menopausal, usually in their 60s, presented with symptoms and signs that were otherwise classic of a heart attack. But when they underwent an angiogram or a cardio catheterization, they weren’t found to have the typical blockages in the arteries that would lead to the heart attack. So, in other words, their heart muscle was weakened due to a sudden episode of emotional stress or, sometimes, even physical stress.

Do we know why one leads to the other? “For a large portion of the history of this disease, the attention was focused on the rise in adrenaline and how it could precipitate this condition. What this new study tells us is that it’s not just the rise in adrenaline, it’s also what your body does to deal with it. And that brings us to the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that helps calm you down one you have a rise in adrenaline. And what this study that was just recently done on people with broken heart syndrome showed is that they had impaired ability to bring down that stress or adrenaline levels and the body responses back to normal.”

What’s the difference between broken heart syndrome and an anxiety attack? An anxiety attack is where you have increased amounts of anxiety and adrenaline in the body. But a broken heart syndrome is an extreme case where that then affects the heart, to weaken the heart, and it can make you just as sick as a heart attack. You can even die from it.”

Why it affects mostly post-menopausal women: “That is somewhat difficult to postulate, although one of the important links is that they do have less estrogen. Also, it may be just the stressful events in their lives at that time. It’s hard to say. A lot of the stress-induced cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome does occur around the time of a passing of a loved one, so that may play a role. Also, illness, personal illness, getting admitted to the intensive care unit, for example, can precipitate that.”

For more information:

New England Journal of Medicine: Broken Heart Syndrome 

Why some women get broken-heart syndrome 

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.