Most people are aware of the classic heart attack: an older man grips his chest with sudden heart pain, and is rushed to the hospital for help. However, now there is growing awareness of other types of heart attacks, and researchers say these silent heart attacks make up almost half of heart attack cases. More men may be affected by these silent heart attacks, but for women, they are more likely to be deadly.
The study comes from Dr. Elsayed Z. Soliman, director of the epidemiological cardiology research center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, along with other researchers. The researchers published their results in the American Heart Association journal, Circulation.
Although doctors are aware of the existence of silent heart attacks, less is known about demographic differences, such as ethnicity and gender. The researchers set out to learn more about these types of heart attack, their prevalence, and the outcomes for men and women and different ethnicities. To do this, they looked at 9,498 middle-aged participants in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study in 1987 to 1989, who were free of cardiovascular disease at the start of the study. The researchers looked at causes of death of these participants until 2010, and they followed up with the participants for five additional examinations until 2013.
The researchers used electrocardiograms to determine whether the participants had a silent heart attack. By the fourth follow-up visit, 386 of the participants had had a classic heart attack. However, almost as many, 317 participants, were found to have had a silent heart attack. This means that although those with a classic heart attack were likely aware of the problem and actively sought medical attention, almost as many may have had heart attacks without even knowing it.
No matter the type of heart attack the participants had, it was associated with a greater risk of coronary heart disease. Men seemed to have a greater risk of a silent heart attack than women, but it seems that women were more likely to die of a silent heart attack than men. The authors also found some potential ethnic differences with heart attack risk.
The big problem with silent heart attacks is that they usually go undetected. If someone experiences classic signs of a heart attack, such as gripping chest pain, they will usually go to the hospital to get medical help. However, the symptoms of a silent heart attack may go unnoticed, so the sufferer will not seek out the help they need and be more at risk of ongoing heart problems and death.
Unlike a classic heart attack, a silent heart attack has few, if any, symptoms. When they find out they have actually had a silent heart attack, many people report mistaking their symptoms for the flu, nausea, indigestion, or muscle pain. Some find their symptoms are dismissed as anxiety when they seek medical help. The only way to know for sure if a silent heart attack has occurred is to be tested with an electrogardiogram, which measures the heart’s electrical activity.
Symptoms of a silent heart attack could include things like getting light-headed or having heart palpitations, or any other change in the body’s reaction to normal activity; swollen legs as they fill with excess fluid; and erectile dysfunction or other blood flow problems. Although any of these symptoms do not necessarily indicate a silent heart attack, any change in the body’s normal function should prompt a visit to the doctor, just to be safe.
Similar to a regular heart attack, a silent heart attack can be caused by a buildup of plaque in the arteries, clogging the flow of blood. This can damage the heart, putting the sufferer at greater risk of a future heart attack, especially if they do not receive proper treatment at the time. The best way to prevent a silent heart attack is similar to preventing a regular heart attack, by exercising, eating healthier, and quitting smoking to keep blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check.