The end of a romance or the death of a loved one really can cause the heart to break – and women are the most likely to suffer.
Research shows that a shock or emotional trauma can trigger the symptoms of a heart attack or other cardiac problem.
Women are up to nine times more likely to suffer ‘broken heart syndrome’, the first large-scale study of the condition has concluded.
Women are seven to nine times more likely to suffer a heart attack from shock or distress - with no sign of blocked arteries or previous history of cardiac problems
Doctors say the classic case involves the death of a husband triggering a rush of adrenaline and other stress hormones that cause the heart’s main pumping chamber to balloon suddenly and malfunction.
Tests show dramatic changes in rhythm and blood substances typical of a heart attack, but none of the artery blockages that typically cause one.
Most patients recover with no lasting damage, but 1 per cent of cases prove fatal.
Dr Abhishek Deshmukh, a heart specialist at the University of Arkansas in the U.S., studied the phenomenon after noting he had treated more women for ‘broken heart syndrome’ than men.
A trawl of records of 1,000 hospitals revealed 6,229 cases in 2007. Only 671 of these involved men.
Taking into account factors such as high blood pressure revealed women to be 7.5 times more likely to suffer the syndrome than men. It was three times more common in females over 55 than those under.
Broken heart syndrome can occur as a result of shock - usually from bad news, but occasionally from good, such as a lottery win
And females under 55 were 9.5 times more likely to suffer it than men of that age, an American Heart Association conference heard.
No one knows why women are more vulnerable but sex hormones may be at play or men’s bodies may be better at handling stress.
The conference also heard that while heart attacks happen more in winter, broken heart syndrome is more common in summer. It can also be brought on by ‘good’ shocks such as winning the lottery.
The study looked specifically at heart problems but bereavement can also damage health in other ways, with men the weaker sex.
A British study found that losing a wife puts the widower at six times a higher risk of death, while a widow’s chances of dying are doubled.
The risk peaks for either surviving spouse in the first year after bereavement, with those married the longest in greatest danger. It is thought the resultant stress depresses the immune system, making existing medical conditions worse.
Ex-prime minister James Callaghan was said to have died of a broken heart after he passed away aged 92 in 1995, days after Audrey, his wife of 67 years.
In 2009, the parents of Spandau Ballet’s Martin and Gary Kemp died within 48 hours of each other. Their father Frank, 79, suffered a heart attack. His wife Eileen, 77, was in the same Bournemouth hospital having a heart bypass. Her sons told her when she came round and she died soon afterwards.