In 1966, soul singer Jimmy Ruffin and Motown Records released the song “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” and quickly had a smash hit on their hands. The song, which has been covered dozens of times since, is Ruffin’s only Billboard top 10 hit. Its lyrics tell the tale of a man whose love has recently left him, the pain he’s now suffering through, and his passing hope of finding new love. Despite the apparent severity the words “broken heart” suggest, the man in Ruffin’s song will survive. Broken hearts are metaphors, not fatal medical conditions.
Broken Heart Syndrome is a real phenomenon. It’s actual name is “takotsubo cardiomyopathy” but it also goes by the more descriptive name of “stress-induced cardiomyopathy.” (A cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle, per the National Institutes of Health.) According to the American Heart Association, Broken Heart Syndrome is often misdiagnosed as a heart attack: “the symptoms and tests are similar” and tests show that Broken Heart Syndrome causes “dramatic changes in rhythm and blood substances that are typical of a heart attack.”
But unlike a heart attack, which is caused by blockages in the heart’s arteries, Broken Heart Syndrome is caused by stress — such as the the stress caused by losing a loved one, per the Mayo Clinic, combined with a few other factors. In 2012, PBS profiled a 50-year-old woman who, had “nearly collapsed at her aunt’s funeral.” PBS described the cause of the woman’s condition as a “toxic mixture of intense grief and unrelated work stress.” And the everyday stresses one suffers from probably aren’t enough to trigger the syndrome; Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that “stress cardiomyopathy appears to be a condition that comes on suddenly and unexpectedly and resolves quite quickly.”
While real, Broken Heart Syndrome is also very rare. Only about 1% or 2% of the heart attacks are actually broken hearts, per the Wall Street Journal. Almost all of the reported cases of people having the syndrome — roughly 90% — are women age 58 to 75, according to Harvard Medical School. Harvard continues, noting that about one in 13 of heart attack victims in that demographic group were actually suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome. And more importantly, a bad breakup or unrequited love? Those probably aren’t going to cause heart attack-like pain. Those things cause just regular broken hearts, not syndromes.
From the Archives: The Best ICU in the Universe: A heart attack that was out of this world.
Related: A “cupid kit” — no axe, though. Just the standard bow and arrow.