The phrase “broken heart” may not be a metaphor at all; a new study finds that people who suffer the loss of a partner are at a considerably higher risk for atrial fibrillation, a serious condition causing the heartbeat to become irregular. And while one’s mind may eventually be able to move past heartbreak, the heart could experience lasting effects.
Researchers examined a countrywide registry in Denmark of close to 89,000 people diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, and discovered that out of the individuals whose partner had died, 41 percent were more prone to developing the condition in the first month after the loss than were individuals who hadn’t suffered the death of a loved one. The risk was especially pronounced among young people whose partners had passed away suddenly and without warning.
“This study adds evidence to the growing knowledge that the mind-heart link is a powerful association and further examination is warranted,” study author Simon Graff, a public health researcher at Aarhus University, tells TIME. “Broken heart syndrome is a different disease with a whole other pathology, but some of the pathophysiological mechanisms might be the same.”
Broken heart syndrome, known medically as stress cardiomyopathy, is triggered by an exceedingly stressful event, like the death of a partner, and can cause sufferers to experience chest pains and shortness of breath, as if they were having a heart attack. Medical experts believe the spike in stress hormones following an emotional episode are to blame.
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Interestingly, even something as seemingly inconsequential as a breakup has the potential to wreak havoc on an individual’s well-being. Since extreme emotional pain activates the same neural pathways as physical pain, grief over a lost love or rejection can lead to actual chest pain, according to research. Likewise, scientists found that people, after splitting from their partners, experience similar withdrawals to those of cocaine addicts, confirming the notion that love is like a drug.
There’s no shortage of studies corroborating the link between stress and the heart, so now that a consensus has been reached, the focus of researchers should be on how to treat the problem.
“We can’t stop stressful situations from coming up in our lives but there may be ways to change the way stress affects our bodies,” says Harmony Reynolds, a cardiologist at New York University Langone Medical Center. “Several things can increase parasympathetic nervous system activity, such as regular exercise, meditation, yoga and deep breathing. These activities all have other health benefits anyway—especially exercise—so they are easy to recommend even though I can’t be at all sure that they could affect risk.”