The announcement by former NFL player Doug Flutie that his parents died within an hour of each other has put the spotlight on the rare “broken heart” syndrome.
While it’s unclear whether either of Flutie’s parents, whom he described as both having fatal heart attacks within an hour of each other, had that syndrome, it’s known that some people can have a severe cardiac event after going through an emotional trauma.
“My Dad had been ill and died of a heart attack in the hospital and my Mom, less than an hour later had a sudden heart attack and passed away,” Flutie wrote on Facebook. “They say you can die of a broken heart and I believe it.”
While it may seem far-fetched, having an "emotional" broken heart has been known to cause severe and sometimes fatal health effects on a person's actual heart. Broken heart syndrome is sometimes called stress-induced cardiomyopathy, or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, according to the American Medical Association, and can strike even in people who are otherwise healthy.
Dr. Sahil Parikh, interventional cardiologist at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, said the condition is rare but appears to most often affect older women. Because the condition is so uncommon, he said, it's not completely understood why the heart is affected.
"What that is, the bottom of the heart, often called the apex, is not contracting. And why that happens, no one really knows," Parikh explained. "People think it’s an excess of hormones like adrenaline that results in stunning of the heart muscle."
Parikh said people can be affected after an emotional experience, either good or bad.
ABC News’ Chief Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser explained that the condition was first noticed in Japan where doctors found that in rare cases people had sudden heart failure following an emotional trauma. The name takotsubo comes from a device used to catch octopuses, he said.
“With broken heart syndrome, it is felt that a surge of hormones impairs the ability of the heart muscle to pump,” Besser explained in a previous column for ABC News. “The X-ray shows a picture of an enlarged left side of the heart.”
As the heart beats abnormally, its shape is similar to the device the Japanese use to catch octopuses.
Dr. Parikh explained that most people who have the syndrome generally recover within a few days without serious lasting damage, although he urges anyone with symptoms to seek medical care immediately. In rare cases the condition can be fatal.
Symptoms of a heart attack, or broken heart syndrome, include chest paints, dizziness, sweating or arm pain. In women, symptoms may not be as pronounced, according to Parikh.
In his post, Flutie remembered his parents and thanked his supporters.
"The most important part of their 56 years of marriage was providing opportunities to their children," Flutie continued. "They were incredible parents and Grandparents and my family and I will miss them both.
“On behalf of me and the entire Flutie family, I would like to thank you all for your well wishes and prayers during this difficult time."