Coronavirus: Broken heart syndrome on the rise during COVID-19, research finds

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Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic in the US have found a significant increase in the number of patients experiencing broken heart syndrome during the coronavirus pandemic.

Broken heart syndrome, a term referring to stress cardiomyopathy, occurs in response to physical or emotional stress and can cause heart failure.

Stress triggers for broken heart syndrome can vary, with US-based nonprofit medical center Mayo Clinic noting that factors that can cause the syndrome include a breakup, divorce, death of a loved one, public speaking, or job loss as potential triggers.

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But now, as coronavirus and accompanying lockdowns and economic pressures have upped global stress levels, more are suffering from the affliction.

The symptoms are similar to that of a heart attack, with chest pain and shortness of breath often reported, but unlike a normal heart attack, arteries are generally not blocked.

Other symptoms of broken heart syndrome also include an irregular heartbeat, fainting, low blood pressure and cardiogenic shock, and symptoms develop when the heart is unable to pump enough blood to meet the body’s demands due to stress hormones, Cleveland Clinic said in a statement.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about multiple levels of stress in people’s lives across the country and world. 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,” Ankur Kalra, a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist, and leader of the study, said in a statement.

Cleveland Clinic said that those who are diagnosed with broken heart syndrome often recover normal heart function within only a few days or weeks, and it is rarely fatal.

“The stress can have physical effects on our bodies and our hearts, as evidenced by the increasing diagnoses of stress cardiomyopathy we are experiencing,” he said.

Although the causes of broken heart syndrome, also referred to as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, have yet to be fully understood, scientists believe that there is a connection to physically or emotional stressful events that cause stress hormones to temporarily reduce the ability of the heart to pump blood, causing it to beat irregularly and contract less efficiently, Cleveland Clinic said.

“While the pandemic continues to evolve, self-care during this difficult time is critical to our heart health, and our overall health,” Grant Reed, the director of Cleveland Clinic’s STEMI program, and an author in the study, said in the release.

The study examined 258 patients at two of Cleveland Clinic’s locations with heart problems between March and April earlier this year and compared them to four groups of similar patients prior to the pandemic.

Hospital patients during the pandemic were diagnosed at a significantly higher rate of broken heart syndrome – around 4 and a half times higher – than prior to the pandemic. The syndrome was diagnosed in 7.8 percent of pandemic patients, compared to 1.7 percent of pre-pandemic patients.

The study also found that those diagnosed with broken heart syndrome took longer to recover at the hospital compared to patients prior to the pandemic. Despite the increase in diagnosis of the syndrome however, patient mortality had not increased.

The diagnosis was also not connected directly to coronavirus infection, as those diagnosed with broken heart syndrome also tested negative, suggesting that it was the stress of the pandemic that was causing the higher diagnosis rate.

“For those who feel overwhelmed by stress, it’s important to reach out to your healthcare provider. Exercise, meditation and connecting with family and friends, while maintaining physical distance and safety measures, can also help relieve anxiety,” Reed added.

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