In English a heart “breaks” just like a dropped glass. Italian gives il cuore (the heart) a word of its own—spezzare—when it shatters into bits. The pain is like no other. “Mi piange il cuore,” a rejected or dejected lover may say. My heart weeps.
Of course, no love is greater than a mother’s (l’amore della mamma). And so when Hollywood icon Debbie Reynolds died the day after her beloved daughter Carrie Fisher, my Italian friends speculated that the culprit was crepacuore or “heartbreak,” a verified medical diagnosis.
“Crepacuore non è solo un modo di dire, è una vera è propria malattia” (Heartbreak is not only a figure of speech but a true and actual malady), say researchers at the Institute of Cardiology at the Catholic University-Policlinico Gemelli in Rome, who have studied the condition known as “broken heart syndrome” or, more formally, stress-induced cardiomyopathy (cardiomiopatia da stress). The Japanese call this disorder takotsubo cardiomyopathy because the weakened heart swells like a balloon (un palloncino) and assumes a bulging shape similar to that of an octopus trap or tako tsubo.
La sindrome da crepacuore mainly strikes women, who outnumbered men by a ratio of nine to one in the Italian study. As the researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, crepacuore occurs most often dopo uno stress emotivo, tipicamente un lutto (after an emotional stress, typically grief after a death).
The symptoms (i sintomi) of crepacuore are similar to those of a heart attack (infarto), including chest pain (dolore al petto) and shortness of breath (fiato corto). The stress hormones released by a traumatic experience–-emotional or physical—can “stun” (stordire) the heart and affect its ability to pump blood to the body (pompare sangue al corpo). The “stunning” effects reverse quickly, often within a few days or weeks. In most cases, there is no lasting damage (danno) to the heart.
However, as the doctors noted, “la sindrome da crepacuore non è una patologia benigna come ritenuto finora.” (Broken heart syndrome is not a benign pathology as was previously thought.) "La prognosi per questi pazienti è simile a quella dei pazienti con infarto." (The prognosis for these patients is similar to that of patients with heart attacks.) About 12 percent develop a grave condition called cardiac shock (shock cardiaco or choc cardiogeno). An estimated five percent die.
The doctors' advice: Listen to your heart. (Ascolta il tuo cuore.) [Click here for a musical version of this advice.] Seek help when it aches. (Cerca assistenza medica quando ti fa male.)
When something really matters, Italians say that it “sta molto a cuore” (is deep in one’s heart). And what can matter more than il cuore stesso (the heart itself)?
Words and Expressions
Intervento a cuore aperto –- open-heart surgery
Soffio al cuore -– heart murmur
Tuffo al cuore -– skipped heartbeat, strong and sudden emotion
Avere il cuore gonfio di gioia/orgoglio/commozione -– to have a swollen heart, to have one’s heart filled with joy, pride, emotion
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.