WEDNESDAY, Nov. 16, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Broken heart syndrome -- a temporary heart condition brought on by extreme physical or emotional stress -- occurs overwhelmingly in women compared to men, a new study suggests.
Whether preceded by the sudden death of a loved one, a frightening medical diagnosis, a car accident or even a surprise party, the phenomenon is 7.5 times more common in females, and women older than 55 are 2.9 times more likely to develop broken heart syndrome than younger women, the researchers found.
"We don't really know what causes it, but it's with people who present with symptoms of a heart attack that often occurs with a very stressful situation," said Dr. Stacey Rosen, associate chair of cardiology at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y. "We know women get all forms of heart disease differently than men do. Whether this is an external effect on the heart muscle . . . or a difference in the way blood vessels behave is yet to be understood," said Rosen, who was not involved in the study.
University of Arkansas researchers were slated to present the study Wednesday at an American Heart Association (AHA) meeting in Orlando, Fla. Research presented at scientific meetings is preliminary and has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Known clinically as takotsubo cardiomyopathy, broken heart syndrome causes a temporary enlargement of part of the heart, while the rest of the organ functions normally or with more forceful contractions. Symptoms mimic a heart attack and trigger chest pain, shortness of breath, an irregular heartbeat and generalized weakness. The condition is treatable and typically resolves within a week, though it is fatal in rare cases.
The study analyzed records from a nationwide database in 2007 and found that of about 6,230 cases of broken heart syndrome, more than 89 percent were in women. About one-third of patients were between the ages of 50 and 65, while 58 percent were older than 65. In those aged 55 and older, the odds of developing broken heart syndrome were 9.5 times higher in females than males, the investigators found.
"It's the first time we have a tangible disease that shows the connection between the mind and heart," said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women's health and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
"I don't think we should underestimate the effects of the mind on the heart," added Steinbaum, also an AHA spokeswoman. "Constant stress, which is so prevalent right now in our world, sort of gives us a window into the possibilities . . . of what our emotional state can have on our heart."
But experts are still trying to discern why women suffer so much more from broken heart syndrome. Hormonal differences between the sexes and variations in coronary arteries may be factors, Rosen and Steinbaum said, but more research is needed.
"There is a truth to women being more emotional and reacting more emotionally, though I'm not sure it's fair to men to say that if something is emotionally upsetting to men, they're not feeling it," Steinbaum said.
"This kind of research 10 or 15 years ago was pretty unusual," Rosen noted. "The fact that gender differences in the heart are being studied now is a pretty tremendous thing. Our understanding of this clinical entity goes hand in hand with this work."
Johns Hopkins University has more about broken heart syndrome.