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The Amazing Achy Breaky Heart

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Dear Dr. Levister: I recently lost by husband of 22 years to a heart attack. His sudden passing triggered sharp pains in my chest. An angiogram showed no evidence of heart trouble. My doctor says I could be suffering from a ‘broken heart’. Is there such a thing? D.P.

Dear D.P.: What you are referring to is ‘broken heart syndrome’, a name given to a mysterious malady that mimics heart attacks, but appears to have little connection with coronary heart disease. Instead, it is triggered by acute emotion or physical trauma that relates to a surge in adrenaline that overwhelms the heart muscle. Think of it as a concussion of the heart triggered by stress rather than by a blocked artery.

The adrenaline surge following your husband’s sudden passing may have disrupted the critical flow of oxygen-rich blood traveling from the lungs to the left atrium, then on to the left ventricle, which pumps it to the rest of the body.

The syndrome is relatively uncommon accounting for about 1 to 2 percent of people and 6 percent of post menopausal women. The syndrome can also be triggered by intense anger and a person’s anxiety over say eviction, job loss, or even emotional response to a car crash. The condition is rarely fatal. Most patients recover quickly, with no lasting damage to their hearts.


Did you know the heart is the most efficient machine in the world. The small accumulation of cells that starts moving on the left side of the 22-day-old fetus. That first movement signals a heartbeat. This collection of cells will now not stop moving for a long time. It will never grow tired. It will beat around 70 times a minute, some 35 million times a year, and some 2 trillion times during an average lifespan (82). It will pump a total of some 227 million liters (59,970,000 gallons) of blood throughout its owner's life (83).

This astonishing amount could fill a 10-ton tanker (84) in a day, or 100 full-capacity swimming pools in a lifetime (85). And this extraordinary pump if given proper care seldom misses a beat from its rhythm, and never goes wrong and becomes old. It never loses its ability to pump blood throughout the body until the death of its owner.

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