When most people think of someone suffering a heart attack, they imagine the symptoms will be obvious; chest pain, pressure or tightness, cold sweat or extreme fatigue. But there is a significant group of people who may experience unusual symptoms or no symptoms at all during a heart attack. Sometimes referred to as a “silent heart attack” some patients experience more subtle symptoms that can be mistaken for heartburn and may also include shortness of breath, unexplained fatigue or soreness in an extremity, the throat, neck or jaw. And a heart attack that does not receive medical attention can increase the risk for a second one that causes severe damage or death.
According to a recent New York Times Personal Health report, millions of people are not aware that they have suffered a silent heart attack; an estimated 45 percent of heart attacks are silent. And if someone doesn’t realize the danger of a possible second, more serious heart attack, it’s less likely they will make lifestyle changes to reduce their risk. By stopping smoking, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels, maintaining a healthy weight, managing type 2 diabetes and getting regular exercise the risk for myocardial infarction can be significantly reduced. But sometimes people need a loud wake-up call in order to make these healthy lifestyle changes; and if a heart attack goes unnoticed and unreported, adults may not alter their habits or be prescribed medications to help protect against a second, more serious attack.
Women, in particular, can experience vague symptoms of a heart attack including mild chest discomfort, heartburn, nausea or shortness of breath. By seeking medical attention and screening high-risk patients for a silent heart attack, more people will get the help they need to avoid a second heart attack.
A heart attack is the leading cause of sudden death in people over the age of 65 in the United States. If you or an older loved one experiences persistent discomfort for a few minutes without a clear explanation, see your physician immediately or seek emergency medical attention. Learn more about silent heart attacks, their warning signs, and how to prevent a second attack by following this link to Harvard Men’s Health Watch.