THURSDAY, March 27, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- The stress of natural disasters can break people's hearts, according to a new study.
Researchers found dramatic rises in "broken heart syndrome" in Vermont after a huge storm ravaged the state and in Missouri after a massive tornado.
People with broken heart syndrome -- formally called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy -- suffer a temporary enlargement and weakening of the heart. The condition is often triggered by extreme emotional or physical stress, such as losing a loved one or being in a traffic crash.
"Despite the seemingly increasing number of natural disasters we have, there is limited data about how it might affect the heart," said lead investigator Dr. Sadip Pant, an internist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
"Our findings suggest two disasters -- one in Vermont and one in Missouri -- might have been possible triggers for the clustering of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy cases in these regions," Pant said.
For the study, a university team looked at data from nearly 22,000 people in the United States who were diagnosed with broken heart syndrome in 2011. They mapped the cases state by state and found that Missouri and Vermont had the highest rate of cases -- 169 and 380 per 1 million residents, respectively.
Most states had fewer than 150 cases per million people. In 2011, Vermont was devastated by Tropical Storm Irene, and an enormous tornado tore through Joplin, Mo., and killed at least 158 people.
The study is scheduled for presentation Saturday at the American College of Cardiology annual meeting, in Washington, D.C.
Symptoms of broken heart syndrome include chest pain and shortness of breath. The condition typically resolves within one or two months, but can lead to serious complications, such as heart failure, heart rhythm disorders and stroke in some cases.
"By and large, it is a very reversible form of cardiomyopathy, but in the acute phase these patients need to be monitored closely to be sure they are stable and to prevent and manage problems," Pant said in a college news release.
"It's also something that emergency doctors and medical personnel need to be aware of as they are often on the frontlines seeing patients after disaster strikes," he said.
Broken heart syndrome is "a perfect example of our brain-heart connection," Pant said. "The emotional stress we have in our brain can lead to responses in the heart, and not much is known about this condition."
Data and conclusions presented at meetings typically are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
Johns Hopkins University has more about broken heart syndrome.