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June 2016

‘Silent’ Heart Attacks Are Common

Up to half of all heart attacks may not have the typical symptoms of crushing chest pain, shortness of breath, and cold sweats. Instead, they may be “silent,” researchers say.

Older man talking with his doctor

Either type of heart attack can damage the heart, though. Heart attacks slow or stop the flow of blood to the heart muscle. Because silent heart attacks may not be noticed, people may not get medical care to prevent another heart attack, said researchers at the Wake Forest School of Medicine. The medical school is in Winston-Salem, NC.

The researchers followed more than 9,400 middle-aged adults in 4 towns. The study lasted for about 9 years. During that time, 317 people had a silent heart attack, and 386 had a heart attack with typical symptoms.

Other factors

The study took into account things like smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. The researchers also noted income and education of each person. These things can affect access to health care.

“Silent heart attacks are almost as common as heart attacks with symptoms, and just as bad,” said study author Elsayed Soliman, MD.

Symptoms of a silent heart attack are so mild they are barely noticed, if at all, Soliman said. Symptoms may be fatigue or upset stomach. They may also include shortness of breath when exercising.

"These subtle symptoms might be your heart and should not be ignored. You should seek out a doctor's care," said Suzanne Steinbaum, MD. Steinbaum is a heart health specialist in New York City.

Most silent heart attacks are discovered by accident, when the damage shows up on an EKG test given during a regular exam or before surgery.

Treatment is the same

Someone who has a silent heart attack needs the same treatment as a person who has a heart attack with symptoms. You may need treatment to control high blood pressure or high cholesterol. You may also need to make lifestyle changes such as eating healthier, exercising, and losing weight.

Treatment is important, the researchers said, because the risk for death from all causes goes up by 34% after a silent heart attack.


Learn more about the warning signs of a heart attack.


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