Study Finds That Time Does Not Mend a Broken Heart

Broken hearts
View of padlocks, placed there by lovers, on the Pont de l'Archeveche bridge near Notre Dame on the Seine river in Paris September 13, 2010. Charles Platiau/Reuters

In contrast to the old adage, time does not mend a broken heart, according to a new study by medics at the University of Aberdeen.

Acute stress-induced cardiomyopathy, also known as ‘broken heart syndrome’, a condition triggered by major stress or trauma such as bereavements, accidents or divorce, was previously thought to improve over time as electrical imbalances in the heart stabilized.

However, a new study pioneered by Dr Dana Dawson, a senior lecturer in cardiovascular medicine at Aberdeen University, has found that when researchers followed patients over a period of four months after they experienced the condition, the heart did not heal as spontaneously as they originally thought.

“The general belief was this condition was recovering itself very rapidly, but this was obviously not the case when we investigated in greater detail,” Dawson said.

The condition, first identified in Japan in 1990 and which mostly affects women, causes chest pains similar to a heart attack. However, when the patient’s coronary arteries are investigated, whilst the heart muscles appear weakened, no actual blockage is found.

“Although they haven’t had a heart attack, they are still at high risk and in-hospital mortality after they are admitted is similar to a heart attack. Patients can go downhill very quickly and electrical instability in the heart can develop,” says Dawson.

“The usual test for heart function is an echocardiogram (Echo) test and when we conduct this it shows that the heart is back to normal,” she continued.

According to Dawson, many of the patients they followed continued to feel weak, could not take part in “strenuous activity” and many could not return to work for an extended period of time after experiencing the syndrome. Using sophisticated diagnostic tools such as cardiac magnetic resonance and spectroscopy, the researchers could see that abnormalities continued to occur in the heart.

“When acute stress induced cardiomyopathy happens, the heart muscle becomes like a sponge when it has absorbed water and it swells significantly. We also observed that the ability of the heart to generate the energy it needs to produce a pumping action was very much reduced.”

“Four months on we found that the parts of the heart most affected by the condition were still swollen and the heart energetics had partly improved but were not at normal levels,” she said.

According to Dawson, the implications of the study are important. “Our findings go some way to providing an explanation as to why patients continue to complain about not feeling right months later despite no apparent problems with their heart,” she says.

“We now intend to call them back to see whether these things ever normalise. If they don’t recover fully then it opens up new questions as to whether acute stress induced cardiomyopathy caused this or whether there was something underlying beforehand that made them susceptible to this kind of episode.”