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Cases of "broken heart syndrome" have increased during coronavirus pandemic, study suggests

Dying from a broken heart isn't just an expression — people can actually die from the pain they feel from the loss of love. So-called broken heart syndrome, resulting from the stress one feels when someone close to them dies, is technically called stress cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, and cases have increased during the coronavirus pandemic, a study by Cleveland Clinic researchers suggests.

The researchers sought to determine if the psychological, social, and economic stress caused by coronavirus is associated with the incidence of stress cardiomyopathy.

The researchers looked at 1,914 acute coronary syndrome patients from two hospitals in the Cleveland Clinic health system who underwent coronary arteriography, a procedure that involves injecting dye to track blood flow through the arteries. They compared patients that experienced the syndrome during the COVID-19 pandemic with patients from time periods prior to the pandemic.

The study, published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open, found a significant increase in occurrences of "broken heart syndrome" during the pandemic. Stress cardiomyopathy was diagnosed in 20 patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, an incidence of 7.8%, compared with pre-pandemic incidences that ranged from 1.5% to 1.8%, the study shows.

The study also found that patients with stress cardiomyopathy during the COVID-19 pandemic had longer hospital stays when compared with those hospitalized in the pre-pandemic period. However, there were no significant differences between the mortality rate of patients during the COVID-19 period and the overall pre–COVID-19 period.

The authors of the Cleveland Clinic study admit it has some limitations: The sample only represents the population of Northeast Ohio and "the results should be interpreted with caution when applied to other states or countries," the authors wrote. 

"Broken heart syndrome" was first identified in Japan about 25 years ago. About 6,230 cases were reported in the U.S. in 2012, according to a study in the American Journal of Cardiology — and there have been some famous cases of "broken heart syndrome" that made headlines. 

When Debbie Reynolds died one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, many speculated the mother died of a broken heart. While Reynolds' cause of death was a stroke, her son Todd Fisher said his sister's death was "just too much" for her.

"She said, 'I want to be with Carrie,'" he told The Associated Press following their deaths in December 2016.

A look at "broken heart" syndrome 01:59

Stress cardiomyopathy can feel like a heart attack, Dr. Harmony Reynolds, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, told CBS News in 2016. "The EKG changes look like a heart attack ... the blood test will show that there's heart attack," Reynolds said. 

However, there are some differences between the two. Unlike a typical heart attack where the heart arteries are blocked, in cases of "broken heart syndrome" the arteries are open, yet the damage to the heart muscle can be more extensive than a typical heart attack.

Another difference is that, unlike a heart attack, if the patient survives the incident the heart goes back to normal, Reynolds said. 

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