Can you die of a broken heart?

Are women's hearts more susceptible to breaking?
Older women tend to suffer from broken heart syndrome more frequently.
Older women tend to suffer from broken heart syndrome more frequently.
John Myers/Getty Images

Broken heart syndrome is a relatively rare condition, affecting between 1 and 2 percent of all patients who undergo cardiac catheterization, a diagnostic test for heart problems [source: Pope]. In 2007, 89 percent of the 6,230 nationwide reported cases of takotsubo cardiomyopathy were attributed to female patients, and according to 2011 research presented to the American Heart Association, women over 55 are 2.9 times more likely to develop it than younger females [source: HealthDay]. Whether women simply respond more severely to extreme stress or if postmenopausal estrogen levels are determining factors in its preponderance among female patients remains unanswered.

The theory that women don't withstand trauma or stress as well as men doesn't hold much water when reanalyzing the range of broken heart syndrome triggers. It turns out that the condition, probably thanks to its catchy nickname, has been overblown in media reports. Certainly, there have been cases of left ventricles rebelling in response to death and funerals, but it's more often related to physical dysfunctions, including stroke, acute respiratory failure, burn injuries and poisoning [source: Derrick]. Data from Johns Hopkins University found correlations between emotional loss and broken heart syndrome in only 40 percent of affected patients [source: Winslow].

Studies of long-term spouses dying in quick succession also contradict the notion that females are biologically less fit to cope with loss. Statistically, widowers are more likely to succumb following their wives' deaths, whereas widows tend to press on longer [source: Martikainen and Valkonen].

For all of its doom and gloom, there is a silver lining to broken heart syndrome: It's seldom fatal. Although heart complications occur in approximately 19 percent of cases, the mortality rate for broken heart syndrome rests between 1 and 3 percent [source: Derrick]. As noted on the previous page, an expanded left ventricle will typically return to its normal size, as in the case of Dorothy Lee, and patients often reach full recovery in as little as a week -- not unlike the metaphorical broken heart that in time, though scarred, will heal.

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