Hype That Breaks Your Heart

The Issue: Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the news hit that a breakup or a surprise party could kill us. Well, not quite

When mosquitoes brought West Nile virus to New York, all the papers said it was going to be the next big deadly epidemic (which, of course, it wasn’t). The day the news came out, I was in my garden in Pittsburgh, and a mosquito landed on my arm. I smacked it, then immediately thought, “Oh my god! West Nile virus!” So I ran inside and did something I hadn’t done since grade-school summer camp: I doused myself with insect repellant. Then I got a whiff of the fumes and remembered I just read an article saying insecticides cause Parkinson’s disease! I’m only slightly ashamed to say I screamed, ran like a girl, and jumped in the shower. Then I came to my senses. I was a trained scientist who knew better than to fall for every this-is-going-to-kill-you headline; if those articles flipped me out, what were they doing to the general public?

I decided to write an article about the science behind health-media freak-outs. Every epidemiologist I talked to–even those whose research depended on West Nile being a threat–said the coverage was hype. The same was true for most of the stories I investigated: The Impending Mad Cow Disease Epidemic, Hanta Virus Wiping Out the West, The Return of Bubonic Plague–none were completely true to the science.

And nothing has changed. I bet few people in America went online or looked at a TV or newspaper in mid-February without encountering some variation of this: “In a study published just in time for Valentine’s Day . . . doctors reported how a tragic or shocking event can stun the heart.” Deadly Broken Heart syndrome made headlines from Boston to Bombay. It was on the front page of the New York Times. The Internet buzzed. TV news ran images of people being rushed from ambulances, heart monitors flatlining.

Responding to press releases from Johns Hopkins University, the media reported that sudden stress–from, say, the shock of a surprise party or the death of a loved one–can cause a surge of adrenaline that can, essentially, poison the heart muscle and cause something that resembles a heart attack. According to ABC’s World News Tonight, “there is no way to predict who is most likely to suffer Broken Heart syndrome” and it “may be more common than most
doctors realize.” Scary stuff–anyone can lose a loved one or walk into a room full of people yelling “Surprise!” Are we
all at risk of dropping dead from this?

Well, no. The media was reporting on research that didn’t prove anything. There was no broken-heart study. There was a “small observational case series,” which is basically a group of scientists saying, Here’s something we noticed that warrants investigation. Of the thousands of people in Baltimore who experienced sudden stress in three years, this report looked at just 19 people. The Times
reported that the syndrome seems to affect more women than men–which might have something to do with the fact that there was only one man in the sample for it to affect. What the research found was a potential connection between sudden stress and a reversible heart syndrome (which no one actually died from). But connection does not mean cause, and cause can’t be determined without a large, carefully controlled study.

When I spoke with Redford Williams, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University, who has been studying the effects of stress on the heart since 1965, he was downright furious about the coverage of Broken Heart syndrome: “It’s” about as common as getting struck by lightning, and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it, aside from avoiding sudden stress, which is impossible.”] This kind of hype distracts from real problems, he says, such as chronic stress–caused by high-pressure jobs, traffic jams, domestic problems and the like. “Chronic stress is far more common and costly in terms of the public health impact, lives lost and human suffering. And it is preventable.” Last year, a bona fide study of 50,000 people worldwide found that chronic stress is as much of a risk factor for deadly heart disease as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity are. Shame that didn’t get nearly the press Broken Heart syndrome did.