Not all heart attacks cause chest pain and drenching sweats: Some may strike “silently,” causing little or no symptoms, new research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests.
The researchers recruited over 1,800 people 45 and older who were free of heart disease, and then scanned their hearts 10 years later.
They discovered 8% of the participants showed evidence of scarring – damaged tissue – on their hearts.
Of that scarring, most had gone unrecognized and uncared for, and nearly half looked typical of a heart attack.
That means those people may have experienced a heart attack and not even known it. (Make YOUR well-being a priority this year! Join Prevention and other leading minds in health & wellness for our annual R3 Summit.)
“In some cases, patients have symptoms that they feel are not bad enough to go to a doctor,” says study author David Bluemke, MD, PhD, director of radiology and imaging sciences at the NIH Clinical Center.
Those symptoms may include mild chest pain, nausea, vomiting, unexplained fatigue, heartburn, shortness of breath, or discomfort in the neck or jaw, he says.
That’s right: A silent heart attack may feel a lot like a bout of a stomach bug or the flu or indigestion. Unlike those illnesses and ailments, however, even a mild heart attack can leave scar tissue on your heart.
And here’s why that’s a huge deal: Scarring may mess with the electrical current in your heart, causing abnormal heart rhythms, or arrhythmia, says Bluemke.
When that happens, your heart may beat too quickly, leaving it unable to pump blood efficiently. This can lead to sudden cardiac arrest – your heart suddenly stops working.
Your best bet? Closely monitor your symptoms when you don’t feel 100%.
But if you’re over 50, 40+ with a strong family history of heart disease, or have other risk factors like obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, or smoking, you should head to your doctor as soon as possible if your symptoms persist longer than 20 minutes or seem to worsen with activity.
Don’t wait to see if they clear up.
Even if you’re not having symptoms, it’s a good idea to see a doctor for an annual physical, too.
That’s because an unrecognized heart attack isn’t the only thing that can scar the organ: Things like chronic high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and smoking can also damage the heart.
In fact, 70% of people with unrecognized heart disease who died of sudden cardiac death actually showed prior scarring on their hearts, a previous study found.
That’s why early detection of heart disease is important, so your doc can control those factors before a heart attack hits. You should also ask your doctor for a CT calcium score or CT angiogram test, says Bluemke. These can detect plaque buildup at a very early stage.