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Study Suggests You Can Die of a Broken Heart

Accurately diagnosing the phenomenon, known technically as stress cardiomyopathy, should help improve treatment for patients who might otherwise receive drugs or other therapies that could do more harm than good, Sharkey and others said.

Wittstein and his colleagues studied 19 patients who had what appeared to be traditional heart attacks between 1999 and 2003 after experiencing sudden emotional stress, including news of a death, shock from a surprise party, being present during an armed robbery and being involved in a car accident. All but one were women. Most were in their sixties and seventies, though one was just 27. None had a history of heart problems.

Sylvia Creamer of Walkersville, Md., developed severe chest pain after giving an emotional talk about her son's mental illness. She had an unusual heart malfunction, not a heart attack, as doctors first thought. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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When the researchers compared them with people who had classic heart attacks, they found that they had healthy, unclogged arteries but that levels of stress hormones in their blood, such as adrenaline, were two to three times as high as in the heart attack victims -- and seven to 34 times higher than normal.

"Our hypothesis is that massive amounts of these stress hormones can go right to the heart and produce a stunning of the heart muscle that causes this temporary dysfunction resembling a heart attack," Wittstein said. "It doesn't kill the heart muscle like a typical heart attack, but it renders it helpless."

Tests also found distinctive patterns in the electrical firing and contractions of the hearts of those who experienced the syndrome, which should enable doctors to diagnose the condition quickly, Wittstein said.

While victims of classic heart attacks often experience long-lasting damage and take weeks or months to recover, these patients showed dramatic improvement within a few days and complete recovery with no lingering damage within two weeks.

That was the case for Meg Bale, 70, of Bloomington, Minn., who had an attack after Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.) died in a plane crash in 2002. She began experiencing severe chest pain that shot down her arm after attending an emotional gathering at Wellstone's office, and she ended up being taken to an emergency room.

"For me, it was just such a shock. I really thought he was something special -- he had real heart," Bale said. "I felt just awful."

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