How moments of pure joy can (literally) break your heart

Sadness can break your heart — and so can happiness, as it turns out.

An international research group has identified 20 individuals whose heart muscles seized up and temporarily stopped working after they experienced a moment of incredible joy, such as getting married, or their favorite rugby team winning a big game. Previously, this condition had been thought to occur only after sad events.

“[This condition] is no longer only ‘the broken heart syndrome,’ but can also present as a ‘happy heart syndrome,’” said Dr. Jelena Ghadri, from University Hospital Zurich, who coauthored a paper published Wednesday in the European Heart Journal.

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The condition is called takotsubo cardiomyopathy because it usually causes the left ventricle of the heart to resemble a takotsubo — a Japanese octopus trap. Part of the muscle freezes up and blood flows irregularly. Eventually, though, the muscle starts working again.

Such a reaction had previously been identified in a handful of individuals who had positive emotional experiences, but this is the first large, systematic investigation of differences between people with “happy” and “broken” hearts, Ghadri said. She is the cofounder of the Takotsubo Registry, which served as the data set for this study; it includes 1,750 patients across 26 cardiology centers in nine countries.

The researchers found that the heart paralysis may have been triggered by a positive emotional event for 20 patients in the registry and by a negative event for 465 patients. (Scientists aren’t sure exactly why the heart responds this way, but some think it might be due to a flood of stress hormones.)

The authors note a statistically significant difference in the location of the paralysis in depressed versus elated patients, but it’s unclear how that finding should be interpreted because the sample size is so small and not random, said Dr. Rohan Khera, a physician at the University of Iowa.

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy affects thousands of people per year in the United States, said Khera, who has studied the prevalence of the condition.

Ghadri said that the next step in the research is to study the differences in the brains of the “happy heart” versus the “broken heart” patients.

The goal: learn more about the relationship between intense emotional experiences and the left ventricle turning into a Japanese octopus trap.

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