It was the Japanese who first identified the problem in the 1990s, showing that a sudden shock or emotional stress can cause the heart to begin behaving as though it’s had a heart attack, even though there is usually no permanent damage. Now researchers at the University of Arkansas have identified that Broken Heart Syndrome is more common in women than in men.

Basically, what causes Broken Heart Syndrome is a sudden rush of hormones and adrenaline, usually from an emotionally linked event. Parts of the heart then enlarge temporarily, causing symptoms much akin to a heart attack, only without the normal physical factors such as blocked arteries and muscle damage in a clinical heart attack.

Broken Heart Syndrome can be caused by both negative or positive events, anything from winning the lottery to a car accident or sudden death of a loved one, have been shown to set it off.

The new research shows women as much as seven times more likely to be affected and older women are at greater risk than younger ones. The researchers presented the information Wednesday at the American Heart Association conference in Orlando, Florida.

Dr. Abhiram Prasad, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist who was not associated with the study, told AP that while heart attack and heart disease, hit men more often and earlier in life than women :

“It’s the only cardiac condition where there’s such
a female preponderance.”

Dr. Abhishek Deshmukh, a cardiologist at the University of Arkansas who has treated women with broken heart syndrome, became curious about just how gender-specific the condition was, prompting the new research. Using a federal database that included data from roughly 1,000 hospitals, Deshmukh found 6,229 cases of broken heart syndrome in 2007. Of those, only 671, just under 11% were in men.

He found women had about 7.5 times the risk of Broken Heart Syndrome than men; in people under 55, women were at 9.5 times greater risk than men. Women over 55 were also three times more likely to suffer broken heart syndrome than younger women. The exact reason for the gender disparity is not known, perhaps men are better at dealing with the physical stress from an emotional event, or perhaps men simply get less emotional. They told the AP that :

“One theory is that hormones play a role. Another is that men have more adrenaline receptors on cells in their hearts than women do, “so maybe men are able to handle stress better” and the chemical surge it releases.

The research also shows about 10% of those affected having a second episode at some point in their lives, but they usually return to full heart function without permanent damage or need for follow-up treatment. It seems that the best way to mend a broken heart is just by giving it a little time.

Written by Rupert Shepherd