About 647,000 people die of heart disease in the U.S. every year, making it the leading cause of death for both men and women.
That danger is multiplied by the fact that many people don't realize they have heart problems because they don't experience the stabbing chest pain or other symptoms people associate with heart disease.
"People expect pain to occur in the chest, almost like a knife going through, and it doesn't happen all the time," said Jairo Cruz, MD, cardiologist at Franciscan Health Olympia Fields. "Symptoms are sometimes very soft, like a little pressure in the chest, a little shortness of breath, a little bit of dizziness, a little weakness."
How Common Are Silent Heart Attacks?
A silent heart attack, or a heart attack that does not have the traditional symptoms, account for 45% of heart attacks and strike men more than women.
"A lot of patients have heart attacks and don't even know they had them," Dr. Cruz said.
What Are Silent Heart Attack Symptoms?
Symptoms of a silent heart attack can often be confused with other health conditions. Those symptoms include:
- Angina or chest discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Heartburn-like symptoms
- Feeling lightheaded
Typical angina, a type of chest pain caused by reduced blood flow, can be a sign that a heart attack is likely to occur, said Michael Hogan, MD, FACC, cardiologist with Franciscan Physician Network Specialty Clinic Lafayette.
Angina frequently reveals itself through symptoms such as chest discomfort with associated shortness of breath. The discomfort may extend up to the neck and jaw or out to the shoulders. It usually occurs with exertion and will resolve by resting.
However, heart attack symptoms that don’t include chest discomfort are often missed.
Are you feeling more tired than normal? Patients can mistakenly assume the fatigue they are experiencing is due to aging or other factors, but blockages in coronary arteries could be the culprit. When blood flow to the heart muscle is decreased, a person gets tired more easily.
Angela Brittsan, MD, PhD, cardiologist at Franciscan Physician Network Indiana Heart Physicians Indianapolis, says high blood pressure can cause changes in the heart, increasing muscle mass, becoming thicker and increasing risk for congestive heart failure.
"You start to show other signs of heart failure like feet or leg swelling or increased fluid retention in the belly and real significant shortness of breath," she said.
Shortness of Breath
Shortness of breath or trouble breathing while doing small activities can be a symptom of a silent heart attack.
While people may be conscious of symptoms that occur during exertion, Dr. Cruz said stress and anxiety are other common triggers.
"The acute heart attack that I see more often is at rest, not during exertion at all. It’s during times of stress, anxiety or frustration, and that's very dangerous because it is unexpected," he said.
Dr. Hogan says another symptom is heartburn that can occur with exertion and is associated with shortness of breath.
"A person should expect heart disease or should be concerned if the 'heartburn' does not usually occur around food consumption," Dr. Hogan said.
If you break out in a cold sweat, feel nauseated, or feel lightheaded, don't dismiss it as the flu. You could be having a silent heart attack.
How Can I Prevent A Silent Heart Attack?
Now's the time to focus on heart-healthy habits, including stopping smoking or tobacco, eating a healthy diet, managing stress and exercising regularly.
Dr. Brittsan says one of the best preventative measures is having your vital signs checked.
"If you never check your blood pressure, you'll never know it's elevated," she said. Blood pressure numbers of less than 120/80 mm Hg are considered within the normal range, according to the American Heart Association.
Plenty of affordable devices available allow you to check your blood pressure at home. Dr. Brittsan recommends one that uses an arm cuff, making sure it's correctly sized.
For people that have a family history of heart disease, another important test is a heart scan that measures coronary artery calcium to find evidence of plaque disease before a silent heart attack happens.
Dr. Brittsan stresses the importance of consulting your doctor before a heart condition worsens.
"When people say, 'I feel fine and don't need to go to the doctor,' just because you feel fine doesn't necessarily mean you're OK," she said.
$49 is a small price to pay for something that can save your life. Learn more about Franciscan’s lung and heart scan bundles.