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Study: COVID-19 Pandemic Caused Uptick In Broken Heart Syndrome

Photo of the Cleveland Clinic's Miller Family Pavillion

Science suggests that extreme stress can lead to a variety of medical problems.

One example is stress cardiomyopathy, a severe heart condition often referred to as broken heart syndrome. The condition, which is brought on by intense emotional stress, causes rapid and severe heart muscle weakness and symptoms similar to a heart attack.

Cleveland Clinic researchers said they have seen an uptick in patients hospitalized with this condition due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A newly released study, conducted at two hospitals in the health system, found a significant increase in patients with broken heart syndrome during March and April.

The study’s findings indicate people are feeling more stressed during this pandemic and need to focus on taking care of their mental health, said lead researcher Dr. Ankur Kalra.

“Anytime there is a stressor you can’t control, which is exactly what the pandemic is, the focus should not be on the stressor, but the focus should be on you,” Dr. Kalra said. “I think self-care and inner work (are) extremely important.”

Researchers compared data collected during March and April with groups of patients hospitalized with the same condition during time periods in 2018, 2019 and just before the pandemic began. Patients with this condition had longer hospital stays during March and April, he said.

Both economic and social stressors caused by the pandemic may have led to the increase.

“Physical, social distancing is a stressor. It clearly is. And different people could react to it in different ways,” Kalra said.

When the syndrome occurs, the patient’s heart pumping chamber conforms to a different shape, which affects the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively, Kalra said.

“In the short-term, it can actually be a fatal condition,” he said. “We actually did lose a patient during the pandemic months to this condition. But in the long-term, the heart tends to recover.”

Kalra has observed a decrease in patients hospitalized for the condition in the months since the study concluded, but more research is needed to validate this, he said.

He also called for further studies looking into broken heart syndrome hospitalizations in other regions aside from Northeast Ohio.

The study was published Thursday in the medical journal JAMA Network Open.