A broken heart can cause more than just emotional pain. New research shows heartbreak may cause lasting damage that can increase the risk of developing other heart-related conditions in the future.

A recent study from researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that so-called “broken heart syndrome” can leave physical scars that never disappear.

Broken heart syndrome is typically caused by an intense emotional stress, such as the death of, or abandonment by, a loved one. The condition actually damages the heart’s left ventricle so badly, it changes its shape. In fact, the official term for the condition is “takotsubo syndrome,” a term first used in Japan in 1990 to describe the “octopus pot” shape that the ventricle morphs into.

Dr. Sherry Grace, a member of the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre in Toronto, says the condition itself isn’t new, but our understanding of it is.

“So what happens is the heart muscle is weakened temporarily and so you get a bit of ballooning in that major left ventricle that’s the main pumping chamber,” Grace explained to CTV’s Your Morning Wednesday.

Not all sadness brings on heart damage, of course, but those who experience a severe shock can often begin to feel chest pain intense enough that it sends them to hospital. There, doctors will typically notice none of the classic signs of heart attacks, such as blocked heart arteries.

Broken heart syndrome is relatively rare, says Grace: only about one or two per cent of suspected heart attacks turn out to be caused by the syndrome. Approximately 90 per cent of cases occur in women, who are typically around the age of 65, and of Asian or Caucasian background.

Those who have had mental health problems, such as anxiety, or neurological conditions, such as seizures, are also more likely to develop the syndrome.

It’s long been thought that the syndrome’s effects didn’t last, but new research suggests that may not be the case.

“With this syndrome, it was thought that it was very temporary, and that only for a few weeks was the heart pumping functioning compromised. But now they see that it lasts for months later, which is very disturbing,” Grace said.

The new research was conducted on several dozen patients with broken heart syndrome who were followed for four months.

The researchers used ultrasound and cardiac MRI scans of patients' hearts and found that parts of the hearts’ muscles had been replaced with fine scars, which reduce the elasticity of the heart and prevent it from contracting properly.

They say that their findings could explain why people with the syndrome tend to have the same life expectancy as those who have suffered a heart attack. It might also explain why some with broken heart syndrome go on to develop heart failure.

Grace says it’s not known if it’s possible to repair a heart damaged in this way.

“We don’t know any cures and we don’t know how to prevent it,” she said.

Medications for anxiety can help reduce further stress to the heart, and beta blockers can help with pumping function. But she adds that it’s long been known that emotional factors, such as social isolation, anxiety and stress can play a role in traditional heart disease.

So she recommends taking the usual steps to avoid heart disease: quitting smoking, exercising, eating well, and caring for our mental health.

The full study appears in the Journal of the American Society of Echocardiography.