‘Broken heart’ syndrome becoming more common in women

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Broken hearts are usually the stuff of poetry and love songs, but “broken heart syndrome” is quite real. Usually triggered by intense stress or personal loss, this condition can result in long-term heart injury and impaired heart function. Even worse, researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center report that broken heart syndrome is becoming more and more common among middle-aged and older women.

The study finds doctors are diagnosing this condition, which scientists call Takotsubo syndrome, in older women up to 10 times more often than younger women or men of any age. Notably, broken heart syndrome diagnoses have also seen an uptick since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although the global COVID-19 pandemic has posed many challenges and stressors for women, our research suggests the increase in Takotsubo diagnoses was rising well before the public health outbreak,” says senior study author Susan Cheng, MD, MPH, MMSc, director of the Institute for Research on Healthy Aging at the Smidt Heart Institute, in a media release. “This study further validates the vital role the heart-brain connection plays in overall health, especially for women.”

Broken heart cases skyrocketing among older women

The team analyzed national hospital data encompassing 135,000 men and women with Takotsubo syndrome between 2006 and 2017 during this project. That investigation led researchers to conclude that women deal with a “broken heart” far more often than men. Researchers add that female diagnoses have jumped at least six to 10 times faster for women between the ages of 50 and 74 than for any other group.

Additionally, among 135,463 documented cases of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, the annual rate of diagnoses has increased steadily year over year among both genders. However, women still account for over 80 percent of cases. Again, this trend is particularly noticeable among middle-aged or older women. For each man of any age or younger woman with broken heart syndrome, 10 middle-aged women and six older women receive the same diagnosis.

Why do women experience this more often?

When something emotional happens to us, whether it be the end of a relationship or the loss of a loved one, it can extract a heavy toll and create stress. Researchers explain that for women, the way in which the brain and nervous system responds to various stressors tends to change quite a bit as the years go on.

“There is likely a tipping point, just beyond midlife, where an excess response to stress can impact the heart,” Dr. Cheng explains. “Women in this situation are at especially affected, and the risk seems to be increasing.”

“This particular study helps to clarify that women of a certain age range are disproportionately at higher risk for stress cardiomyopathy, and that the risk is increasing,” concludes Christine M. Albert, MD, MPH, chair of the Department of Cardiology at the Smidt Heart Institute. “The upswing could be due to changes in susceptibility, the environment, or both. More work is needed to unravel the underlying disease drivers in Takotsubo condition and other women-dominated conditions.”

The findings appear in the Journal of the American Heart Association.