According to the American Heart Association, a staggering 750,000 Americans have heart attacks each year. But new research suggests that the real number may be closer to 1.4 million or even higher thanks to silent attacks that damage the heart without crushing chest pain and drenching sweat.
Silent heart attacks may masquerade as nasty heartburn, a bad case of stomach flu, an achy arm or weird fatigue. The only way to uncover one is with an electrocardiogram, a test that tracks electrical activity, or another heart-imaging test that looks for signs of damage after the fact. That’s exactly what researchers from Wake Forest School of Medicine did, sticking ECG electrodes on the chests of 9,498 women and men several times over nine years as part of a major, ongoing study. What they discovered was that while 386 study volunteers had conventional heart attacks that sent them to the hospital, another 317 had silent heart attacks so quiet they escaped notice. Those 317 silent heart attack survivors are three times more likely than people who didn’t have any type of heart attack to die later from heart-related problems. Men were more likely to face one of these stealth attacks; women were more likely to die in the aftermath.
With more advanced testing, silent heart attack numbers could be even higher. In a high-tech study from Iceland, researchers used cardiac MRI tests to take detailed pictures of the hearts of 936 people. The researchers found signs that silent attacks were almost twice (1.7 times) as common as conventional heart attacks.
Here’s what you need to know:
▪ High blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol levels and high blood sugar raise your risk for a silent heart attack, just as they do for a not-so-silent one. If your numbers aren’t in the healthy zones, get serious about following a healthy diet. You know the drill: plenty of produce, whole grains, lean protein, plus good fats and low-fat or fat-free dairy. Banish added sugars and syrups as well as most saturated and all trans fats from your diet. Walk a minimum of 30 minutes daily (aiming for 10,000 steps) and make time for stress reduction. If your doc recommends medications, take them as directed while you make healthy lifestyle changes. And don’t smoke.
▪ Don’t ignore whispers (or shouts) of trouble. Diabetes, heart disease, congestive heart failure and pain when you walk (due to narrowed arteries in your legs) seriously elevate your risk for a silent heart attack. And silent heart attacks aren’t actually symptom-free, but the red flags are easy to write off. Even though blood flow’s been cut off to part of your heart, you may chalk up your odd symptoms to one too many burritos, overdoing it at the gym, a bad night’s sleep or a stomach bug.
▪ If you have chest or abdominal discomfort that feels like heartburn or indigestion, unexplained tiredness, even nausea and vomiting or odd tightness in your throat and think it may be a silent heart attack, call 911. Getting treated quickly saves as much heart muscle as possible. But folks who have silent heart attacks often miss out on interventions, with deadly consequences.
▪ Think you’ve had one? Tell your doc. If you’re wondering about weird symptoms in your past or if you have ongoing tiredness, shortness of breath and/or chest twinges, talk to your doctor. A silent heart attack can cause valves in your heart to leak or leave scars that make the heart work less efficiently. Your doctor may order an ECG, a cardiac ultrasound or other tests. If needed, you’ll get a treatment plan that includes lifestyle changes (nutrition upgrade and more physical activity) as well as possible medication (a statin and/or daily 162 mg of aspirin with a warm glass of water before and after) to protect your heart from further damage and make yourself strong again.
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Visit www.sharecare.com.