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Scientists have identified why people sometimes die from a broken heart after grief or relationship breakdowns.
They found stressful life events increase levels of two molecules in heart cells which play a crucial role in the development of takotsubo cardiomyopathy – or ‘broken heart syndrome’.
The breakthrough, by Imperial College London, paves the way for new treatment options that could prevent future deaths.
The syndrome occurs when the heart muscle becomes suddenly weakened and the left heart chamber changes shape. Scientists have been mystified by the biological triggers for takotsubo syndrome. But they have now linked it to microRNAs -16 and -26a which regulate how genes are decoded and activated during stressful periods.
They found stressful life events increase levels of two molecules in heart cells which play a crucial role in the development of takotsubo cardiomyopathy – or ‘broken heart syndrome’. Stock picture
These molecules are linked to depression, anxiety and stress – suggesting that longer-term distress followed by a dramatic shock could trigger the syndrome. The study was published in the journal Cardiovascular Research.
The symptoms often mimic those of a heart attack and it leads to chest pains, breathlessness and can cause the heart to stop beating.
The condition, which was first identified in Japan in 1990, affects about 2,500 people in the UK each year, mainly post-menopausal women.
Lead author Professor Sian Harding, from Imperial College London, said: ‘Takotsubo syndrome is a serious condition, but until now the way it occurs has remained a mystery.
‘We don’t understand why some people respond in this way to a sudden emotional shock while many do not.
‘This study confirms that prior stress, and the microRNAs associated with it, can predispose a person to developing takotsubo syndrome in situations of future stress.
The breakthrough, by Imperial College London, paves the way for new treatment options that could prevent future deaths. Stock picture
‘Stress comes in many forms and we need further research to understand these chronic stress processes.’
Professor Metin Avkiran, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘Takotsubo syndrome is a sudden and potentially catastrophic heart problem but our knowledge about what causes it remains limited.
‘As such, it is vital that we learn more about this neglected condition and develop new ways of preventing and treating it.
‘This research is not only a crucial step towards better understanding of this mysterious disease but also could provide new ways to identify and treat those at risk of takotsubo.
‘We now need further research determine if drugs that block these microRNAs could be the key to avoiding broken hearts.’
There are currently no treatments to prevent a repeat attack of the syndrome.