A sudden and serious heart condition triggered by severe emotional stress can lead to the same type of long-term damage as a heart attack, according to new research presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions in Anaheim, California, and funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF).
Takotsubo syndrome (also called ‘broken heart syndrome’) affects around 3,000 people each year in the UK. During an attack, part of the heart muscle weakens and balloons, which cripples the heart’s pumping ability. Doctors used to believe patients would fully recover quickly and even without any treatment but that view is now being emphatically overturned.
Researchers from the University of Aberdeen followed 37 takotsubo patients for an average of two years. Using exercise testing and cardiac MRI scans, the team found that patients’ heart function was often affected long after an event. Worryingly they also found patients had ongoing symptoms of heart failure similar to patients who have suffered a heart attack.
The images also revealed the tell-tale signature of fine scar tissue in parts of the heart’s muscle. This damage, which is currently untreatable, reduces the elasticity of the heart and prevents it from contracting properly during each heartbeat.
These findings may help to explain why takotsubo sufferers have similar long-term survival rates to people who’ve had a heart attack. Dr Dana Dawson, BHF-funded researcher at the University of Aberdeen, who led the research, said:
“It is becoming increasingly recognised that takotsubo is more common than we originally thought.
“This is the longest follow up study looking at the aftermath of takotsubo, and it clearly shows permanent ill-effects on the hearts in some of those who suffer from it. These patients are unable to perform physical exercise as well and fatigue more easily.
“Our research shows that takotsubo needs to be treated with same urgency as any other heart problem, and that patients may need ongoing treatment for these long term effects. Our next goal will be to identify suitable treatments.”
Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said:
“Takotsubo is a devastating disease that can suddenly strike down otherwise healthy people. We once thought the effects of this life-threatening disease were temporary, but now we can see they can continue to affect people for the rest of their lives.
“There is no long-term treatment for people with takotsubo because we mistakenly thought patients would make a full recovery. This new research shows there are long-term effects on heart health, and suggests we should be treating patients in a similar way to those who are at risk of heart failure.”
In a previous piece on takotsubo, Julia Samuel, bereavement counsellor told NetDoctor:
“For the last twenty five years of working with those grieving the death of someone they love, every single one of them has their version of saying to me ‘my heart physically hurts’ or ‘I feel broken hearted’. This is something that is universal across cultures, gender and religious divides.”