Cases of broken heart syndrome increase amid pandemic stress

A heart illustration.
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Stress from the coronavirus pandemic may be breaking people's hearts. 

Cardiologists in Ohio have found that the number of patients experiencing Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome, increased four-to-five fold during the coronavirus pandemic compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to a small new study. 

Broken heart syndrome is typically brought on by extreme physical or emotional distress, and can cause heart muscles to suddenly weaken, according to a Live Science report. The symptoms can be similar to those of a heart attack, including chest pain and shortness of breath, according to the report.

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The causes of broken heart syndrome aren't known, but it's thought that physically or emotionally stressful events can cause the body to release stress hormones that temporarily reduce the heart's ability to pump normally, according to a statement

The pandemic has led to "multiple levels of stress in people's lives across the country and world," study co-author Dr. Ankur Kalra, a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist in the Sections of Invasive and Interventional Cardiology and Regional Cardiovascular Medicine, said in the statement. "People are not only worried about themselves or their families becoming ill, they are dealing with economic and emotional issues, societal problems and potential loneliness and isolation."

In the new study, Kalra and his team analyzed data from 258 patients who came to the Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Akron General with acute coronary syndrome (ACS) between March 1 and April 30, corresponding to the time period when the pandemic was first taking off in the U.S. They then compared these patients with four control groups of ACS patients who came to the clinics before the pandemic: from the beginning of March to the end of April of 2018, the beginning of January to the end of February of 2019, from the beginning of March to the end of April of 2019 and the beginning of January to the end of February of 2020. 

The researchers found that 7.8% of ACS patients were diagnosed with broken heart syndrome during the pandemic, compared with 1.5% to 1.8% before the pandemic. What's more, they found that patients who had broken heart syndrome during the pandemic stayed at the hospital for longer than those in the pre-pandemic groups. 

The researchers didn't find any differences in mortality rates, however. Most patients who develop the condition recover completely without permanent damage, but sometimes the condition can have lasting consequences and can, rarely, be fatal, according to the statement. None of the patients diagnosed with broken heart syndrome had been infected with the novel coronavirus.

"While the pandemic continues to evolve, self-care during this difficult time is critical to our heart health, and our overall health," senior author Dr. Grant Reed, director of Cleveland Clinic's ST-elevation myocardial infarction program, said in the statement. "For those who feel overwhelmed by stress, it's important to reach out to your health care provider."

Also, "exercise, meditation and connecting with family and friends, while maintaining physical distance and safety measures, can also help relieve anxiety," he added.

The findings were published July 9 in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Originally published on Live Science.

Yasemin Saplakoglu
Staff Writer

Yasemin is a staff writer at Live Science, covering health, neuroscience and biology. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Science and the San Jose Mercury News. She has a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Connecticut and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.