Researchers in the US have found that bad or shocking news really can break your heart. They found that after a trauma like this, people can suffer days-long surges in adrenalin and other stress hormones which "stun" the heart. This can even be mistaken for a heart attack. The researchers examined patients who came into hospital complaining of symptoms similar to those of a heart attack - chest pains, fluid in the lungs, shortness of breath and heart failure. But on closer inspection, these people – who were mainly older women – had no other signs of a heart problem. But all the patients had experienced some kind of severe emotional shock just before they got ill. For example, half had just learned of the death of a partner or relative. One person had been the victim of an armed robbery, while another had been the victim of a surprise party. And when doctors investigated further, they found that the patients had very high levels of stress hormones, particularly adrenalin and noradrenalin, in their blood. This was even higher than levels of these hormones found in genuine heart attack patients. The researchers also found high levels of another heart hormone, confusingly called brain natriuretic peptide. It’s these stress hormones that can be toxic to the heart, say the researchers, effectively stunning it. Luckily, these broken hearts can be mended – using MRI scanning and other techniques, the doctors found that the damage caused by stress is temporary, usually lasting just weeks. So there’s no need to cancel that surprise party just yet.
Part of the show Science of Sex, Smell and Pheromones... from the 13th Feb 2005