Stress can affect us in different ways and there is increasing evidence that it can result in harm to our hearts. One of our world-leading cardiologists explains how we can treat those with one stress-related heart condition in particular called takotsubo syndrome.
Can stress result in a heart attack?
We all experience stress in our day-to-day lives and deal with it in different ways. Whether it be preparing for an important meeting at work or worrying about our finances, it can be caused by a range of factors and be hard to pinpoint exactly what makes us most stressed.
How stress may affect your heart depends on whether it is caused by a sudden event or is chronic (persisting for a long time) in nature.
With chronic stress, we are yet to determine exactly how it results in heart disease, but we do know it increases the risk of it occurring and could be as important a risk factor as high blood pressure or smoking.
This may be due to the way our brains process emotions during chronic stress, resulting in the inflammation of our arteries – a risk factor for heart disease. It can also be due to the way some of us deal with stress by taking up unhealthy habits such as smoking, exercising less and overeating – which may in turn raise blood pressure and cholesterol.
Sudden events, such as the loss of a loved one, that lead us to experience severe emotional or physical stress can also result in a heart condition called takotsubo syndrome – or ‘broken heart syndrome’.
The word ‘takotsubo’ originates from the name of a Japanese octopus trap which resembles a bulbous round-bottomed pot. This is because the left ventricle of the heart – the chamber which pumps oxygenated blood around the body – becomes enlarged and partly paralysed and takes on a similar shape to the pot with this condition.
This change to the shape of the ventricle causes the heart muscle to become weaker and doesn’t pump blood as well as it should. This can result in symptoms which feel similar to a heart attack, such as chest pain and shortness of breath.
The condition is more common in women than men – as much as 90% of cases are in women aged 58 to 75, but it can occur at any age. Also, unlike other diseases of the heart muscle, it is not inherited.
How is it diagnosed and treated?
“Due to the similarities in symptoms between takotsubo syndrome and a heart attack, we will first aim to rule that out before investigating further,” explains Dr Alex Lyon, consultant cardiologist and a specialist in treating takotsubo syndrome.
“The tests we conduct aim to assess the shape of the various chambers of your heart and whether there are signs of damage to the heart muscle. The tests can include an echocardiogram, a cardiac MRI scan and a coronary angiogram.
“Based on the condition of your heart, we then set up a personalised treatment plan to assist with recovery, such as medications to reduce the strain on your heart, as well as those that prevent blood clots forming – which may happen due to the condition.”
For most people with takotsubo syndrome, their hearts will return to normal after a few days to months. However, for some, their hearts may permanently change shape and require continued monitoring and treatment by a specialist.
A useful source of information for patients following takotsubo syndrome is the Takotsubo Support Group . Dr Lyon is one of its international advisors and helped create a website with useful information.
If you have a heart concern that you think could be linked to stress, we can help. Please get in touch with our customer services team to book an appointment.
Consultant cardiologist and heart failure specialist with special interest in takotsubo syndrome, cardio-oncology (heart problems in cancer patients) and COVID-19 and heart disease.