If you’ve ever lost a beloved pet, you know how much it can hurt. In fact, the pain could be enough to break your heart, suggests a new report published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Last year, shortly after the death of her treasured Yorkshire terrier Meha, then 61-year-old Joanie Simpson woke up with symptoms consistent with a heart attack, reports the Washington Post. She was airlifted from her local emergency room to Houston’s Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute, where doctors diagnosed her with something a bit more unusual: takotsubo cardiomyopathy, otherwise known as broken-heart syndrome.
The condition can occur after a physical or emotional stress, like the death of a loved one, says Dr. Ilan Wittstein, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins and a broken-heart syndrome researcher (who was not involved with Simpson’s case or the new report). “The heart muscle suddenly weakens and doesn’t squeeze the way it should,” he says. The heart temporarily stops pumping effectively, which can result in low blood pressure and even congestive heart failure. “A whole variety of emotional triggers can cause it,” and it can occur in people who are otherwise healthy.
While broken-heart syndrome looks a lot like a heart attack initially, Wittstein says there are some key physiological differences. In the average heart attack, a clot in a major coronary artery blocks blood flow to the heart, permanently killing some of the muscle. With broken-heart syndrome, however, the major arteries remain clear, but the tiny vessels surrounding the heart are damaged, he says. It’s rarely fatal, and the problem can usually be fixed quickly if properly treated.
Broken-heart syndrome is surprisingly common. Wittstein says as many as 2% of people who are hospitalized with heart attack symptoms actually have takotsubo cardiomyopathy. (Given that 735,000 Americans have a heart attack each year, that’s not an insignificant number.) The condition overwhelmingly affects women from ages 58-75, likely due to dropping levels of heart-protecting estrogen. It also typically occurs after a stressful time. Simpson told the Washington Post that she was stressed about her son’s impending back surgery, her son-in-law’s recent unemployment, a drawn-out property sale and, most recently, losing her cherished nine-year-old furry companion.
Wittstein says he’s seen several bereaved pet owners affected by broken-heart syndrome. “It actually can range anywhere from the dramatic—’I was almost killed in a car accident’—to, ‘I missed an appointment and I’m a little frustrated by it,’” he says, adding that some people may be more susceptible to the ailment than others. “We’ve seen the whole gamut.”
As for Simpson? She was discharged from the hospital after two days, the Post reported, and is now in good health and taking heart medication for maintenance. While losing Meha may have landed her in the hospital—and in the pages of a prestigious medical journal—she told the Post she has no doubt she’ll find another canine soulmate in the future.
“It is heartbreaking. It is traumatic,” Simpson said of losing a pet. “But you know what? They give so much love and companionship that I’ll do it again. I will continue to have pets. That’s not going to stop me.”