Broken heart syndrome

Researchers learning more about the mysteries of the heart


Each year, more than two million Americans say "I do." Some experts say as many as 91 percent of married Americans are happily married. It's a far cry from the usual mantra that we hear, which is that half of all marriages end in divorce. It turns out, that's not true.

New research shows marriage can actually help you survive a health crisis and, on the flip side, losing the one you love can cause serious heart problems.

After nearly 47 years of marriage, Charles Strassner lost his wife, Anne.

"There isn't a day goes by that I… that I don't think of her," said Charles.

Charles knew his wife was dying, but her death was still unbearable. He had what doctors call broken heart syndrome.

"It is absolutely a real thing. They have chest pain reminiscent of a heart attack. They have EKG changes that look like a heart attack," explains Cardiologist Christine Tompkins from the University of Rochester Medical Center.

It's acute heart failure triggered by stress and it can happen to healthy people with healthy hearts.

"They can present with life-threatening arrhythmias and actually sudden death and need to be shocked and resuscitated back to life," added Tompkins.

It can kill you, but it can also be treated and reversed. Researcher Kathleen King has uncovered another mystery: happily married people who have heart surgery are more than three-times as likely to be alive 15 years later as unmarried people.

"We were really surprised at the result," says Kathleen King, RN, PhD, a researcher from the University of Rochester Medical Center. "We really did not expect the difference to be that big."

And how happy you are matters.

"Eighty three percent of the women who were highly satisfied with their marriage were still alive compared to 29 percent of the women who were not satisfied with their marriage," explained King.

Charles is happy for every minute he had with Anne.

"It's still lonely though," he said. "Making supper for one is not that great."

But he has faith he'll see her again.

"Just by the grace of God I get through the days, day by day," said Charles.

Broken heart syndrome, which is also called stress cardiomyopathy, can also be brought on by sudden good news like winning the lottery. It is most common among postmenopausal women. High blood pressure and migraines also appear to be risk factors for the condition. Tompkins says it's vital to seek medical attention right away for any heart symptoms experienced during a stressful time.