Researchers say they now know some people can die of a broken heart and are trying to understand more about what triggers such deaths, and develop prevention strategies which might help people most at risk.
Angela Kucia, an emergency department cardiac assessment nurse in Adelaide, told 891 ABC Adelaide broken heart syndrome had only been medically identified fairly recently.
"It's something that has been like folklore — everybody knows of someone who has actually died of a broken heart or thought they had after the death of a loved one," she said.
"But it was difficult to imagine what the mechanism for that would be — do they stop eating, do they stop doing their normal activities?
"Now we know that it's the heart and the brain together that actually cause people to die of a broken heart after a sudden stressful event."
Ms Kucia, who is a senior lecturer in nursing at the University of South Australia, said a research team in SA was trying to understand more about the syndrome.
"I do think we need to look more closely into anxiety disorders," she said.
"I do frequently see people who come in with chest pain related to anxiety that is put down to a panic attack, but I do think we need to look at this more closely.
"We have had some reports of young women with a cardiac arrest after, for example, an argument with a boyfriend, but it does tend to be in older women."
The nursing researcher said dying of a broken heart still seemed to be a rare cause of death.
"Luckily it's a relatively rare phenomenon when people die ... in the past 20 years we've seen the condition predominantly in post-menopausal women," she said.
"It was first discovered by Japanese researchers in around 1990 in women who had suffered an emotional event such as the death of a spouse.
"It was difficult to get any interest in it in the west because at that time it was thought to be something to do with an Asian population [being] seen as more prone to this.
"Now that we know what it is and we know what to look for, we're seeing around 2 per cent of patients, women particularly, who present with symptoms of a heart attack but actually do have this broken heart syndrome."
Adrenalin response can be 'toxic'
Ms Kucia said researchers believed adrenalin was a key factor.
"We do know that the biggest player in this condition developing is what we call adrenalin-like hormones that we get in response to stress," she said.
"You hear people talk about the flight-or-fight mechanism if you get a sudden fearful event ... your body actually produces more adrenalin ... but in large doses it's quite toxic to the heart.
"Some people don't seem to handle it as well as others so we know that this adrenalin plays a part in getting the heart not to pump properly."
She said some people seemed to suffer stress from life events which other people might consider quite trivial.
"We do know that one of the main things that can predispose someone to this broken heart syndrome is a sudden emotional shock or anxiety, but the severity of it varies," she said.
"In the people that we've seen come to our hospitals here in SA, it might be something like the death of a spouse, or a bushfire ... almost anything that causes stress to an individual can cause [broken heart syndrome] no matter how trivial it seems to some.
"Yet other people who deal with great stress or anxiety don't develop it. We haven't got the answer to that yet."
Palliative Care Council of SA chief executive Tracy Waters said her organisation was well aware of cases of people apparently having died of a broken heart.
She said the council had run cafe workshop sessions for the past year at which people spoke of experiences relating to death or preparing to die.
"We run 'die-a-logue' cafes where people come together and share their experiences," she said.
Ms Waters said nearly 60 people attended a recent session at North Adelaide and one woman told of someone who cared for a husband with motor neurone syndrome.
"He died, just a week later she did too," she said.
"We talked about exactly that, did she die of a broken heart?"
Source: 891 ABC Adelaide
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