A study of approximately 9,500 middle-age adults found that nearly half of the heart attacks that occurred during the study period were “silent”. The patients were not aware they had a heart attack and did not seek medical attention however, their electrocardiogram (ECG) screening during a regular follow-up appointment showed that a heart attack had occurred.
The study, Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC), analyzed the causes and outcomes of atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries. Over an average of nine years after the start of the study, 317 participants had silent heart attacks while 386 had heart attacks with clinical symptoms.
Amir Haghighat, M.D., interventional cardiologist at the Cardiovascular Institute in Panama City, clarifies that “Silent does not necessarily mean a total lack of symptoms. More likely, it’s that the symptoms were subtle or not recognized as a heart problem.” Frequently, television and movies depict a heart attack as a dramatic event with crushing chest pain. “Chest pain is a common symptom, however everyone experiences heart symptoms differently.” says Dr. Haghighat. “For some, it may be shortness of breath, pain in their left arm, in their neck or jaw, or even in the shoulder blades, and it may not be as dramatic as you think.”
“The outcome of a silent heart attack is as bad as a heart attack that is recognized while it is happening,” said Elsayed Z. Soliman, M.D., MSc., M.S., study senior author and director of the epidemiological cardiology research center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “And because patients don’t know they have had a silent heart attack, they may not receive the treatment they need to prevent another one.”
Dr. Haghighat stresses that these study results are further proof that patients should see their primary care providers regularly and discuss any unusual symptoms they may be experiencing. “We all know when we’re feeling something different in our bodies and it’s important to discuss it with a healthcare provider,” says Dr. Haghighat. “Take note of when your symptoms occur, do they happen with exertion or at rest? Don’t ignore symptoms just because they come and go. Your primary doctor may be able to identify the issue with basic screenings and prescribe preventative measures. Or in the case of a “silent” heart attack, coordinate treatment with a cardiologist that can lower your risk of having additional heart attacks.”
After following participants in the ARIC study for 20 years, researchers found that having a silent heart attack increased the chances of dying from heart disease by three times. As a result, silent heart attacks should be treated just as aggressively, once discovered, as a heart attack with recognizable symptoms. “For both kinds of heart attacks,” says Dr. Haghighat, “the risk factors and the treatment are the same. Even though a patient may not have experienced a scary heart event in an ER, they still need to be proactive and make lifestyle changes to reduce their risk such as quitting smoking, losing excess weight, eating healthy and getting regular exercise.”