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Why some women get broken-heart syndrome

Many elderly women have been hospitalized with what they believe is a heart attack, but it's actually what doctors call "broken-heart" syndrome
What causes women to experience broken-heart syndrome? 03:57

People often feel pain from the loss of love, but in some cases a broken heart is not just an expression -- it can be an actual medical diagnosis. The technical term is stress cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, and many elderly women have been hospitalized with it, thinking it's a heart attack.

"Broken-heart syndrome goes by a number of different names and all of them are colorful, but this is a heart attack type syndrome," Dr. Harmony Reynolds, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, told CBS News. "So for the patients, it feels exactly like a heart attack, and for doctors when the patients come in, they're having the right symptoms. The EKG changes look like a heart attack ... the blood test will show that there's heart attack."

But there are a few things that are different. For one, unlike a typical heart attack where the heart arteries are blocked, during broken-heart syndrome the arteries are open. And in broken-heart syndrome, the damage to the heart muscle can be more extensive than a typical heart attack.

"But what's most interesting about this is that it completely goes away. So if people survive the initial incident, the heart goes back to normal,"Reynolds said.

Broken-heart syndrome was first identified in Japan about 25 years ago. According to a study in the American Journal of Cardiology, 6,230 cases were reported in the U.S. in 2012. Approximately 90 percent of those affected are women, though men can get it, too. It typically occurs in the post-menopausal years, with the average age around 65.

Reynolds recently led a study of 20 women to look for possible reasons why some of the women experienced broken-heart syndrome. The findings were published in November in the American Journal of Cardiology.

She said the condition is generally thought to be brought on by strong emotion, such as grief or anxiety.

"It gets the term broken-heart syndrome because it's often a severe emotional stress like the death of a loved one or some very upsetting news," Reynolds said. "Almost having an accident, we've seen a couple of patients like that."

However, it can also be triggered by physical stress. "We had someone who went white water rafting and she had gotten it. It was just much more physical activity than she was accustomed to," Reynolds said.

Sometimes it's a combination of emotional and physical stress, and sometimes there's no trigger at all.

The symptoms can last weeks to months and can sometimes prove fatal. The patients who survive still have a higher risk of death, averaging 5 percent per year.

What's most important, Reynolds said, is that if you think you may be experiencing a heart attack, seek medical treatment immediately.

"If you're having chest pain in any situation that you think could be heart-related," she said, "you belong in a hospital."

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