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Is it possible to die of a broken heart? NFL legend Doug Flutie says yes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Flutie, a former NFL Pro Bowler, announced on Facebook that his mom fell victim to a broken heart Wednesday morning, dying within an hour of his father, who died of a heart attack while in the hospital. They had been married for 56 years.
“It is with a heavy heart that I am making this statement,” he wrote. “This morning, my family experienced the tragic loss of my father, Dick and mother, Joan. 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.”
“They say you can die of a broken heart and I believe it,” Flutie continued, before thanking his parents for all that they did for him and his family. Flutie’s post garnered more than 45,000 likes and 16,000 comments within four hours.
The concept of dying of a broken heart is a romantic one, but “broken heart syndrome” (also known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy) is real, according to the American Heart Association.
The association says the phenomenon can strike even if you’re healthy, and it’s more likely to occur with women. Symptoms include sudden, intense chest pain, which can be caused by an emotionally stressful event, like the death of a loved one, divorce, or loss of a relationship.
“It’s more common than you’d think in certain patient populations, like older women,” Nicole Weinberg, MD, a cardiologist at California’s Providence Saint John’s Health Center, tells Yahoo Health.
There are still some facets of broken heart syndrome that researchers are trying to explain, but Weinberg says it’s largely caused by a huge adrenaline surge in the system that simply makes a person’s heart stop squeezing normally.
“It short circuits that squeezing ability and makes it so that the heart can’t function well,” Weinberg says. “Then you’re at risk for heart arhythmias [improper heart beats] or sudden death like you are with a massive heart attack.”
Lori Daniels, MD, a professor of cardiology at University of California, San Diego, and director of the Coronary Care Unit at the Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center at UC San Diego Health tells Yahoo Health that about one to two percent of all heart attacks are caused by broken heart syndrome.
Even scarier: People can experience broken heart syndrome, even if they have no history of heart disease and no risk factors. Symptoms of broken heart syndrome are similar to that of a heart attack, but, unlike those who suffer from a heart attack, people who develop broken heart syndrome have no blocked arteries.
“The trigger for it is based in something that’s non-cardiac,” Weinberg explains. “It has nothing to do with actual coronary arteries.”
While broken heart syndrome is dangerous (and even fatal), patients can feel better within 48 to 72 hours if their condition is caught early enough. In that case, Weinberg says doctors will give strong doses of medication to lower the heart rate and blood pressure, and blunt the response of the energy surge in the patient’s body.
“It’s not that common to die of broken heart syndrome—about one in 20 will die of this,” Daniels says. “Most people go on to fully recover and go back to completely normal heart function within a month or so.”
But it can be difficult to know when broken heart syndrome will occur. “You can go nine months and not see a patient with broken heart syndrome, and then see four in a month,” Weinberg says. “It’s the craziest thing.”
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