How a "broken heart" can actually break your heart

It's not just a figure of speech.

We've all heard of folks who "died of a broken heart." You might even know of someone who died shortly after the loss of a spouse, family member, or close friend.

Now, the latest research shows how it happens -- how the genuine emotional agony of heartbreak can, in a very real way, quite literally BREAK your heart!

The new study finds the damage inside the body is very similar to what we see in heart attack patients.

There's reduced function that can last for months or longer, and there's even scarring -- which, in some cases, is permanent and will increase the chances of heartbreak turning into an actual heart attack.

Researchers did heart scans on 52 people with what's more formally called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy but is better known as "broken-heart syndrome."

These are folks enduring extreme stress, often from loss. While some people literally die of the disease, up until now, most of the damage was believed to be temporary.

Turns out that may not be true at all.

Ultrasounds and MRIs revealed that the heart's ability to pump is reduced, with a delay in what's known as the "wringing" part of each heartbeat.

The means the heart isn't squeezing as well or as fast as it should, which what we see in many heart attack patients.

Even worse, the scans revealed scarring on the heart itself.

That's exactly the kind of damage we see in patients who've had an actual heart attack -- and if that scarring doesn't heal, it can lead to a permanent loss of function.

Those scars are why heart attack patients have a higher risk of having another heart attack, and they help explain why folks who suffer from a "broken heart" also have a higher risk of a heart attack.

Of course, it's one thing to know about this.

It's quite another to be in a position to do something about it.

If you have a friend or loved one around you battling the stress of loss, be there and be supportive. Make sure he or she takes care of himself despite the heartache.

When it happens to you -- and some loss is inevitable in life -- don't be afraid to turn to those around you for the support you need. And of course, never forget the healing power of prayer. A few moments in the presence of God can ease some of the heaviest burdens.

But there's also something you can do that's a little more concrete: take fish oil supplements.

Omega-3 fatty acids can reduce scarring in heart muscle after a heart attack, so it would stand to reason that it SHOULD do the same for folks with broken-heart syndrome, too.