'Broken heart syndrome' on the rise during coronavirus pandemic

·5-min read
Black and white picture of a young girl sitting with her head down feeling gloomy.
'Broken heart syndrome' is on the rise amid the pandemic. (Getty Images)

“Broken heart syndrome” is on the rise amid the coronavirus outbreak, research suggests.

Scientists from the Cleveland Clinic have reported a significant increase in the number of people experiencing stress cardiomyopathy.

Known as broken heart syndrome, this can occur when emotional distress triggers dysfunction of the heart muscle.

Amid the pandemic, people around the world are mourning the loss of loved ones, with the death toll exceeding 550,000. Others are battling anxiety that they or those they care about may catch the infection.

Months of lockdown has also triggered an economic fallout that has left many scared for their jobs, while the vulnerable may be enduring loneliness brought on by isolation.

Early research suggests the coronavirus is mild in four out of five cases, however, it can trigger a respiratory disease called COVID-19.

African Woman Broken Heart Disappointed Sad Concept
Broken heart syndrome is medically known as stress cardiomyopathy. (Getty Images)

Stress of coronavirus ‘has physical effects on the heart’

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about multiple levels of stress in people’s lives across the country and world,” said lead author Dr Ankur Kalra.

“People are not only worried about themselves or their families becoming ill, they are dealing with economic and emotional issues, societal problems and potential loneliness and isolation.

“The stress can have physical effects on our bodies and our hearts, as evidenced by the increasing diagnoses of stress cardiomyopathy we are experiencing.”

The scientists looked at 258 patients who were admitted to the Cleveland Clinic or Cleveland Clinic Akron General with acute coronary syndrome symptoms, like discomfort in the chest or arms, between 1 March and 30 April.

Compared to before the pandemic, significantly more of these individuals were diagnosed with stress cardiomyopathy, rising from 1.7% to 7.8%.

Results, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, also revealed the patients admitted amid the coronavirus outbreak spent longer in hospital.

When it came to death rates, there was no significant difference in those diagnosed before or during the pandemic.

All of the patients with stress cardiomyopathy, also known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, tested negative for the coronavirus.

The results may sound alarming, however, simple lifestyle tweaks can help ward off the condition.

“While the pandemic continues to evolve, self-care during this difficult time is critical to our heart health and our overall health,” said study author Dr Grant Reed.

“For those who feel overwhelmed by stress, it’s important to reach out to your healthcare provider.

“Exercise, meditation, and connecting with family and friends, while maintaining physical distance and safety measures, can also help relieve anxiety.”

The scientists are calling for further research into stress cardiomyopathy amid the coronavirus outbreak, particularly to uncover if the phenomenon is occurring outside the US.

What is stress cardiomyopathy?

Stress cardiomyopathy occurs when the left ventricle of the heart changes shape and enlarges.

This weakens the heart muscle, preventing it from pumping blood as effectively as it should.

It is unclear exactly what causes stress cardiomyopathy, however, it is often brought on by physical or emotional distress.

This can include bereavement, abuse, assault, financial worries or even surviving a disaster, like an earthquake.

In rare cases, people have experienced stress cardiomyopathy after a happy event, like getting married.

A specific trigger cannot be identified in around 30% of incidences. The condition is not thought to be hereditary.

Experiencing traumatic events can cause a rush of hormones – like adrenaline – to be released, which may be responsible. Temporary constriction of the heart’s arteries may also play a role.

In a typical year, around 2,500 people develop stress cardiomyopathy in the UK, with the risk being highest among women over 50.

In the US, one study found it affects 0.02% of hospitalised patients, however, its exact prevalence is unclear.

Symptoms are similar to a heart attack, namely chest pain and shortness of breath. Some also endure palpitations, nausea and vomiting.

Treatment focuses on righting the distorted heart shape via medication. If the trigger was emotional distress, counselling may also be beneficial.

Most people start to recover within a few days, however, for some the change in heart shape is permanent. These patients may continue to experience symptoms like fatigue and chest pain.

Around 10% to 15% of stress cardiomyopathy survivors develop it again.

In rare cases, the condition can be fatal if it triggers a stroke, dangerously low blood pressure or chaotic heart rhythms.

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What is the coronavirus?

The coronavirus is one of seven strains of a virus class that are known to infect humans.

Others cause everything from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which killed 774 people during its 2002/3 outbreak.

Since the coronavirus outbreak was identified, more than 12 million cases have been confirmed worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Of these, over six million are known to have recovered.

The coronavirus mainly spreads face to face via infected droplets expelled in a cough or sneeze.

There is also evidence it can spread in faeces and survive on surfaces.

The infection itself has no “set” treatment, with most patients naturally fighting it off.

The steroid dexamethasone is being used in hospitals throughout the UK to reduce the risk of death among patients on ventilators or oxygen.

Officials urge people ward off infection by washing their hands regularly and maintaining social distancing.

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