The Real Health Risks of Broken Hearts

Jean Cacciabaudo discusses heart disease prevention for Valentine's Day.
Jean Cacciabaudo, MD

Being a cardiologist on Valentine’s Day is no fun. When everyone else gives out heart-shaped candy boxes, you find yourself thinking about broken hearts.

I don’t mean that in the pop culture way, as in crying over relationships that have gone bad or moping about unrequited love. Medically speaking, broken hearts are real, and they’re dangerous; the sort of emotional turmoil associated with a major, heartbreaking event, or with severe depression and other forms of mental illness, can cause great cardiac damage.

In Japan, this syndrome is called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, after the distinctive pots used to catch octopi. Under normal conditions, our left ventricle, contracting beat to beat to pump blood into our aorta, is about the size of one’s fist. But in a person suffering from takotsubo cardiomyopathy, the left ventricle takes on a different shape, looking more like an octopus caught in the balloon shaped pot.

Takotsubo, or Broken Heart Syndrome, can strike even people who are healthy, and is usually quickly reversible. But a host of conditions that are all too common may complicate things further. Drinking, for example, damages the heart’s muscle cells, weakening it and potentially impairing its pumping function. Similarly, drugs like cocaine cause aortic stiffening, increase blood pressure, make the heart’s left ventricle wall thicken, and may also accelerate coronary atherosclerosis. And women in menopause, sadly, no longer benefit from the protective effects of estrogen which modulate blood vessel health and normal vasoactive responses.

Sadly, however, these common risks are too often ignored. This is because most cardiac conditions are still largely thought of as a “man’s disease.” That’s a dangerous misconception: heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.

Through the efforts of health systems and doctors nationwide, as well as organizations like the American Heart Association, we’ve been able to reduce the risk of dying form cardiovascular events in women dramatically since the early 1990s. Education and awareness have played a big role in this welcome change, but there’s still much work to be done. Like all real change, the fight against heart disease must begin with each one of us.

First, we should all be mindful of cardiac risks, and understand the part that conditions like mental illness and habits like smoking, drinking, or recreational drug use play in impacting our cardiac health. Next, we should simply listen to our bodies. If we pay attention, we’ll know right away whether that ache or pang we’re feeling is normal and best ignored or new and potentially menacing. Talking to my patients, I too often hear them talk about sensing something catastrophic and yet choosing to convince themselves that it’s normal and will soon pass. That’s a mistake, and, sadly, a potentially costly one.

This Valentine’s Day, then, let’s not let our hearts get irreparably broken. Instead, let’s give this day added meaning by vowing to take a moment and educate ourselves about that most important organ, one that does so much more than just spread love.

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