Roberta Silver was driving along when her heart began to pound. Later at a hospital, she was told that she had suffered a heart attack. But the tests disagreed. "I had no blockage, nothing," Silver says. Ultimately, doctors changed the diagnosis to broken-heart syndrome. Some researchers now believe the unusual condition, which mimics a heart attack and affects mostly post-menopausal women, is related to "an impaired parasympathetic nervous system"—the part of the nervous system that helps calm the body, the Wall Street Journal reports. "It gets the term broken-heart syndrome because it's often a severe emotional stress like the death of a loved one or some very upsetting news," that triggers it, Dr. Harmony Reynolds of NYU Langone Medical Center tells CBS News. One of the telltale signs that no heart attack was at play: the arteries remain open.
In a study published in the American Journal of Cardiology, Reynolds and colleagues administered stress-inducing tests to 20 women, 10 of whom had suffered broken-heart syndrome and 10 "healthy" controls. Researchers discovered that the first group, even years after their attacks, were vulnerable to blood pressure and heart rate irregularities. Based on the findings, Reynolds hopes to research prevention strategies such as yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises. “We need to enhance the mind-body relationship,” she tells the WSJ. Also called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, broken-heart syndrome was first identified in Japan 25 years ago, and 6,230 cases were reported in the US in 2012. The syndrome can cause more damage to the heart muscle than a heart attack, "but what's most interesting about this is that it completely goes away," Reynolds tells CBS. "So if people survive the initial incident, the heart goes back to normal." (Here are 5 Things to Know About Heart Attacks.)