Have You Already Had a Heart Attack? The Terrifying Way You Can Have One and Not Know It

Heart disease is something no one wants to think about, but it’s also a top killer of both men and women. Most people think heart attack symptoms are pretty straightforward: Chest pains and trouble breathing. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. In fact, you can actually have a heart attack without even realizing it.

Some startling statistics

Human Heart Anatomy Illustration. 3D render

You may have no idea that a heart attack is coming. | iStock.com/Nerthuz

Believe it or not, nearly half of all people who have heart attacks don’t realize it at the time. They’re known as silent heart attacks, and they’re only diagnosed after they’ve occurred. Needless to say, this is very troubling, especially since heart attacks can be deadly.

The warning signs

Stethoscope sitting on an red ECG printout

There are a lot of subtle warning signs. | iStock.com/RTimages

Not many people know that there are often warning signs that a heart attack is coming. Unusual extreme fatigue, pain in your back, neck or jaw, and indigestion are often your body’s way of giving you a heads up that your heart is in trouble. But the symptoms are all easily explained away, so people often miss them.

The unknown symptoms

hands showing red heart

Educate yourself on the symptoms. | iStock.com

Another big part of the problem is that some symptoms of a heart attack aren’t very well known, and they can resemble other more minor issues, like heartburn or indigestion. But heart attacks aren’t usually like the way they’re portrayed on TV, with people clutching their chest and then being rushed to the ER.

Shortness of breath, nausea and lightheadedness, and breaking out into cold sweats are some of the heart attack symptoms most people chalk up to the flu. And some, like swollen ankles (“cankles”), nausea and abdominal pain, and random toothaches, would never be associated with a heart attack unless the person was well-versed in warning signs.

 So how does this happen?

doctor in a white coat holding a symbol to indicate heart health

Heart attacks occur when a valve is blocked. | iStock.com

Heart attacks happen when the supply of blood to the heart becomes blocked, typically by a blood clot. But despite this, sometimes people don’t feel chest pain, so they chalk their symptoms up to simply being ill. Another explanation is that some have a high pain tolerance and don’t think their symptoms are serious.

Women are especially at risk …

Young doctor at work

Men and women may be at equal risk for a heart attack. | iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

While women are not more likely to suffer from a silent heart attack than men (findings are inconsistent but it appears that both men and women are equally at risk), women are more likely to miss them. This is because women and their physicians may be more likely to chalk up symptoms of a silent heart attack to anxiety and dismiss them. Women may be less likely than men to experience chest pain or other “classic” symptoms as well, so it’s important for women to be educated on silent heart attacks and know the warning signs.

… but silent heart attacks are more common than we thought in both men and women

Doctor taking pulse

Heart attacks are more common than originally believed. | iStock.com

Recent research from an Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study found that nearly half (45%) of heart attacks appear to be clinically silent. Other studies have had similar findings, so it’s safe to say that we need to spread awareness of these silent killers. Future studies will have to determine if adults might benefit from routine screening for silent heart attacks, but until then, it’s up to us to stay diligent. Just like heart attacks with symptoms, silent heart attacks increase your risk of early death.

How to prevent it from happening to you

elements of blood pressure

It’s imperative to keep your blood pressure in check. | iStock.com

No one wants to have a heart attack, especially a silent one that is damaging their hearts without them even knowing it. The first step is always knowing your risks: Smoking cigarettes, high cholesterol, increasing age, obesity, and lack of physical exercise are all common factors. Keep your blood pressure in check, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and find healthy ways to manage your stress to lower your risk of a silent (or any) heart attack. Your life could depend on it.

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