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Know the risk, prevention of a silent heart attack

Two women walking in park.

/ by UK HealthCare

Did you know that up to one in five heart attacks can be silent? In some cases, patients meet with a physician for what they think is the flu or unexplained fatigue only to learn they’ve actually had a heart attack. In other cases, a silent heart attack might not get diagnosed until the patient experiences another heart event and the damage is discovered. So what is a silent heart attack, and how can we prevent them?

A silent heart attack is caused by the same process as a regular heart attack: blood is blocked from flowing to a section of the heart, which causes that heart muscle to die and be replaced by scar tissue. The risk factors that increase your chance of a silent heart attack are the same as the risk factors that increase your risk of most cardiovascular diseases. These factors include:

  • High blood pressure.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Tobacco exposure, especially smoking.
  • Family history of heart disease.
  • Obesity.

Even if you do not have any of these risk factors, but especially if you do, you can work towards a healthier heart. “We can all improve our health by making healthy lifestyle changes. This includes eating better, getting enough sleep and making time to exercise. Our diet should consist mostly of plants and we should avoid processed foods that have a lot of salt and sugar added to them. Fifteen to twenty minutes of moderate activity, like walking, can significantly improve our cardiovascular health,” says John Kotter, MD, a cardiologist at the Gill Heart & Vascular Institute.

One important difference between a typical and a silent heart attack is that a silent heart attack goes undetected and untreated due to subtle or misrecognized symptoms such as: 

  • Indigestion.
  • Flu-like symptoms.
  • Feeling of a strained muscle in upper back.
  • Pain in the jaw.
  • Pain in either arm.
  • Prolonged and excessive unexplained fatigue.

Keep in mind that even though chest discomfort is the most common symptom of a heart attack for both men and women, women are more likely than men to experience these subtle symptoms. Women are also more likely to have their heart attack misdiagnosed. You know your body better than anyone – if you think you are having a heart attack, be sure to make that clear to the people around you.

By definition, silent heart attacks go unnoticed. But by monitoring your risk factors, knowing the non-specific symptoms of heart attacks and listening closely to your body, you can prevent a silent heart attack and receive the care and treatment you need.

Take our quiz to assess your risk for heart disease.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, call 9-1-1 right away.

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