SINGAPORE: The death of a loved one, a broken relationship, divorce ... these are situations that can create sufficient emotional stress to damage the heart as much as a heart attack, British researchers claim.
Termed broken heart syndrome, or takotsubo, the condition occurs when extreme stress stuns the heart, resulting in the left ventricle - one of the heart's chambers - to change shape. It was first identified in Japan in the 1990s and the term means octopus pot, which describes the shape of the deformed heart.
Doctors had presumed the heart damage was temporary and would heal. But researchers at the University of Aberdeen have discovered that the condition permanently weakens the heart, similar to a heart attack.
Their findings were presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions in California on Nov 11.
In the study, the researchers followed 37 patients with takotsubo for an average of two years, and carried out regular ultrasound and MRI scans of their hearts.
What they found was that the heart damage was detectable after the event first triggered takotsubo had passed. They also found that many of the patients became tired very easily and were unable to exercise. Women are more commonly affected by takotsubo that men, said the researchers.
Dr Dana Dawson, lead researcher from the University of Aberdeen, said: "This is the longest follow up study looking at the long term effects of takotsubo, and it clearly shows permanent ill-effects on the hearts of those who suffer from it".
Currently, there is no long-term treatment for the condition as doctors had thought patients would make a full recovery with time.
Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said that the "research shows that takotsubo needs to be treated with the same urgency as any other heart problem, and that patients may need ongoing treatment for these long-term effects".
However, scientists are still trying to understand exactly how takotsubo occurs and why some people are affected and not others.