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People May Never Fully Recover From A Real Broken Heart

Refinery29 logo Refinery29 11/13/2017 Kasandra Brabaw
a group of people posing for the camera: Refinery29 © Photographed by Ashley Armitage. Refinery29

New research from the University of Aberdeen suggests that people who suffer from a truly "broken" heart may never fully recover. The researchers presented their findings at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions in Anaheim, California this week.

Often, when we talk about heartbreak we're talking in a figurative sense. Our hearts are broken over lost loves, missed opportunities, and the deaths of family and friends. But, for some people, a broken heart is very literal.

These are the people the researchers are talking about — those who've suffered from Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or "broken heart syndrome." It usually happens when someone undergoes serious emotional or physical stress, such as the death of a loved one or being involved in a natural disaster like a hurricane, and it most commonly happens in women. More than 90% of reported cases are in women ages 58 to 75, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

Of course, a person's heart doesn't literally split down the middle — even when they have "broken heart" syndrome. Instead, Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is a weakening of the heart's left ventricle — the main pumping chamber, according to Harvard Health Publishing. The chamber swells into a Takotsubo shape — referencing a Japanese pot that looks like the head of an octopus — and therefore can't pump as well. This ballooning causes symptoms similar to a heart attack, like fainting, chest pain, and shortness of breath.

Doctors have believed for a long time that "broken heart" syndrome is temporary and reversible, but the new research presented at the AHA conference casts doubt on that idea. The researchers followed Takotsubo patients over two years and monitored their heart function using exercise testing and cardiac MRI scans, NetDoctor reports.

They found that some people who had Takotsubo were easier to fatigue during exercise, had scar tissue on their hearts, and had similar long-term survival rates as people who'd had a heart attack.

Although the study is small — the researchers followed only 37 people — some doctors have said that it suggests medical professionals should be taking "broken heart" syndrome more seriously.

"There is no long-term treatment for people with Takotsubo because we mistakenly thought patients would make a full recovery," Jeremy Pearson, PhD, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said, according to NetDoctor. "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."

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