The average human heart beats about 100,000 times a day and approximately 3 billion times over an average lifetime. It’s an amazing organ. However, did you also know that someone suffers a heart attack (medically referred to a myocardial infarction or MI) every 3 minutes in the UK? The typical image of someone experiencing a MI will show them holding their chest with agony, red faced and gasping for breath. However, shockingly around 45% of heart attacks do not cause any symptoms whatsover.
Most MIs are caused by Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). Atheroma or fatty deposits form in the coronary arteries and restrict the heart’s vital blood supply, starving it of oxygen and damaging the tissue. Symptoms can vary from person to person but typically include: unusual breathlessness; dizziness; a crushing sensation in the chest area; nausea; sweating; and, pain in the jaw, arm, neck or abdomen.
With a silent MI symptoms may be so mild that they are mistaken for a pulled muscle, indigestion, unexplained tiredness or a virus. However, the heart’s circulation and oxygen supply are still temporarily interrupted, potentially resulting in irreversible damage. Only investigations such as an electrocardiogram (ECG) which analyse the heart’s electrical activity, or blood tests to measure markers such as cardiac troponin (an enzyme) can assess any damage to the cardiac muscle and allow a treatment plan to be devised.
Am I at risk?
So, what does this all mean? Firstly, risk factors determine rates of CHD development. Some of these cannot be modified and include ageing; ethnicity (risk is greater in Asians and African Americans); and, genetics (individuals with a direct relative who have had a heart problems before the age of 60 are 50% more susceptible). A high fat diet, smoking and excessive alcohol and salt intakes are additional risk factors.
How can I protect myself?
However, there are several actions you can take to minimise cardiovascular risk. These include: eating a healthy, balanced diet; maintaining a healthy BMI (18.5 to 24.9 kg/m2); exercising regularly; minimising stress levels; avoiding tobacco use (smoking and chewing); and, moderating your alcohol use. Additionally, it is important to have your blood pressure, cholesterol profile and blood glucose checked regularly.
If you suspect that you have had a silent heart attack or are at risk of having one, it is vital that you talk urgently with a doctor. Amazingly, approximately 50% of people delay seeking medical advice for dangerous lengths of time which can obviously impact negatively on a positive outcome. Even if you have doubts, a doctor needs to review your symptoms and perform a physical exam to determine if more tests are needed.
Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing. All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of sample surveyed. Online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.