Research reveals hearts are breaking at an alarming rate

A doctor uses a stethoscope to listen their patient's heart.
A doctor uses a stethoscope to listen their patient's heart. Photo credit Getty Images

New research confirms what Mariah Carey has known all along: “Heartbreaker, you got the best of me.”

In a study published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Heart Association, scientists discovered hearts are breaking at an alarming rate.

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Broken heart syndrome — officially called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy — occurs when the heart is suddenly stunned. Generally a short-term, reversible condition, it's caused by severe physical or emotional stress. Medically known as apical ballooning syndrome, it causes the left ventricle to temporarily inflate and pump poorly. The balloon shape resembles a “tako-tsubo,” a Japanese fishing pot for octopus.

The condition can be life-threatening, but most patients recover fully after a month. Fortunately, recurrence is rare.

Nationwide, hospitals reported more than 135,000 cases of broken heart syndrome from 2006 to 2017. Although researchers found significant increases in the rates of the conditions in both women and men, women accounted for 88% of the cases. In addition, older women experienced the concerning condition at rates up to 12 times higher.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Susan Cheng, director of the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, described the skyrocketing rates as intriguing and concerning.

Cheng said the condition has only recently become widely recognized by the medical community after the New England Journal of Medicine first published research about it in 2005. However, the condition had been studied heavily in Japan for decades, according to the American Heart Association.

“As we advance in age and take on more life and work responsibilities, we experience higher stress levels,” Cheng elaborated. “And with increasing digitization around every aspect of our lives, environmental stressors have also intensified.”

The study did not include patient data post-pandemic, so the findings reflect life before COVID-19. Nevertheless, Cheng said our new normal has had “profound effects on the heart-brain connection.”

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