You undoubtedly know those scenes in movies or on television where the actor grabs his chest in pain to show he’s suffering a heart attack. But heart attacks like that are only half the story. New research shows 45 percent of all heart attack victims suffer what’s called a silent attack — meaning they don’t even realize it’s happening.
According to a study published May 16 in the journal Circulation, nearly half of all heart attacks do not have the classic symptoms, or even any major symptoms at all. And while men are more likely than women to have a silent attack, women are more likely to die from one, the study found.
“The outcome of a silent heart attack is as bad as a heart attack that is recognized while it is happening,” Elsayed Z. Soliman, M.D., study senior author and director of the epidemiological cardiology research center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said in a statement. “And because patients don’t know they have had a silent heart attack, they may not receive the treatment they need to prevent another one.”
A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is severely reduced or cut off completely, damaging the heart muscle. Typical symptoms include chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness or cold sweats.
But there can also be nontraditional signs like unexplained fatigue, pain or discomfort in the throat, neck or jaw, or what seems like heartburn — symptoms so mild, they’re barely noticed, if at all, Soliman said. Evidence of these silent attacks is usually discovered accidentally while testing patients’ hearts for other reasons, the study showed.
Researchers analyzed the records of nearly 9,500 adults ages 45 to 64 already enrolled in a national study analyzing the causes and outcomes of hardening of the arteries. Over a period of nine years, 317 participants had silent heart attacks, while 386 had heart attacks with more recognizable symptoms.
The study also followed participants for more than 20 years to track deaths from heart attack and other diseases. Findings showed that silent heart attacks increased the risk of dying from heart disease threefold, and increased the chance of dying from all causes by 34 percent.
Because the symptoms of a silent heart attack can be subtle, people should not dismiss sudden fatigue, nausea or shortness of breath that occur when exercising or running errands, but that go away when resting, cardiologist Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women’s heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told HealthDay.
“These subtle symptoms might be your heart and should not be ignored — you should seek out a doctor’s care,” she said.