Severe emotional stress can cause as much damage to the heart as a heart attack, British researchers claim.
At least 3,000 adults in the UK a year suffer from ‘broken heart syndrome’ – or takotsubo – but the true number may be even higher.
It is commonly triggered by a bereavement and occurs when the stress of the event causes the heart muscle to become stunned and weakened.
But until now doctors had presumed the damage was temporary and would eventually heal with time.
But researchers at the University of Aberdeen have discovered that the condition permanently weakens the heart, similar to a heart attack.
In the longest-running study so far, they followed 37 patients with takotsubo for an average of two years.
They carried out regular ultrasound and MRI scans of their heart and found the damage was present long after the event which first triggered the condition.
Many of the patients became tired very easily and were unable to do exercise even though doctors had assumed they’d recover.
The researchers said patients should be offered the same drugs as those whose hearts have been damaged by a heart attack.
Dr Dana Dawson, lead researcher from the University of Aberdeen, who led the research, said: ‘It is becoming increasingly recognised that takotsubo is more common than we originally thought.
‘This is the longest follow up study looking at the long term effects of takotsubo, and it clearly shows permanent ill-effects on the hearts of those who suffer from it.
‘These patients are unable to perform physical exercise as well and fatigue more easily.
‘Our research shows that takotsubo needs to be treated with same urgency as any other heart problem, and that patients may need ongoing treatment for these long term effects.’
Women are more commonly affected by the condition than men and there are likely to be many more cases than the figures suggest.
Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘Takotsubo is a devastating disease that can suddenly strike down otherwise healthy people.
‘We once thought the effects of this life-threatening disease were temporary, but now we can see they can continue to affect people for the rest of their lives.
‘There is no long-term treatment for people with takotsubo because we mistakenly thought patients would make a full recovery.
‘This new research shows there are long-term effects on heart health, and suggests we should be treating patients in a similar way to those who are at risk of heart failure.’
The condition occurs when extreme stress causes the heart to become stunned, resulting in one of its main chambers – the left ventricle – changing shape.
It was first identified in Japan the 1990s and the term takotsubo means octopus pot, which describes the deformed shape of the heart.
Scientists are still trying to understand exactly how it occurs and why some people are affected and not others.
Last year a major project by Swiss researchers found the condition was commonly triggered by happy events as well as sorrow.