Can you die of a broken heart?

Love Hurts, Literally
Peter Dazeley/Getty Images
Peter Dazeley/Getty Images
Emotional pain causes real physical pain.

Japanese doctors first identified broken heart syndrome among five patients in the early 1990s. That cluster stood out among the 415 other heart attack victims they examined, since the five patients appeared to have no blocked arteries, the usual source of such incidences, and they recovered more quickly and easily than the rest of the study population [source: Dote et al]. Upon closer inspection, the Japanese physicians noticed the hearts' left ventricles had ballooned, resembling a takotsubo, or pot used for catching octopi [source: Derrick]. That swelling exerted additional pressure on the heart, which explained the temporary heart attack-like symptoms. In 2005, two additional studies on takotsubo cardiomyopathy linked these types of faux heart attacks to extreme emotional states of grief, anxiety and stress, which helped earn the condition its Shakespearean nickname.

Broken heart syndrome is just one rare example of how heartache can affect our health. Even in minor doses, the sting of rejection and loss doesn't reside solely in the mind but literally travels throughout the body. The brain processes it as a form of physical discomfort and also triggers the inflammatory stress responses that might cause our palms to sweat, hearts to race and breathing to quicken [source: Hendrick]. Brain imaging technology, for instance, has revealed that the neurological pathways stimulated by the heartache of being dumped and the pain of a bare hand holding a piping hot cup of coffee are identical [source: McMillan]. As a result, breakups have also been known to incite a host of ailments, including asthma attacks, insomnia, flu and shingles [source: Nelson].

Although parting ways with a romantic partner isn't necessarily a precursor for broken heart syndrome, extreme stress can aggravate the heart. In response to stress, the body releases catecholamines, or hormones produced in the adrenal glands that prompt our self-protective "fight or flight" reaction. Doctors suspect that a flood of epinephrine and norepinephrine (aka adrenaline and noradrenaline) briefly disable the heart's muscular cells and slow its pumping functions down to crawl, similar to a heart attack [source: Winslow]. Once the condition is correctly diagnosed, patients generally recover -- sometimes with the assistance of aspirin and other mild medications to regulate blood circulation -- in roughly a week [source: HealthDay]. What medical researchers haven't figured out yet, however, is why women's hearts tend to "break" more often than men's.