Nearly half of heart attacks go undetected, and these "silent" cardiac events can be as bad as those that are quickly diagnosed, a new study says.
Writing in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, the authors said men are more likely to have had an undiagnosed heart attack, but women are more likely to die from one.
"The outcome of a silent heart attack is as bad as a heart attack that is recognized while it is happening. 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," said the lead author, Dr. Elsayed Soliman, director of the epidemiological cardiology research center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., in a news release.
A silent heart attack can feel like indigestion or occur with no symptoms at all. But the damage that occurs when blood flow to the heart is interrupted is identical to a heart attack with classical symptoms. These include chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea and sweating.
Recovery from both types of heart attacks is the same: quit smoking, lose weight, control your cholesterol and blood pressure, and exercise more.
Dr. Jennifer Ashton, an ABC News correspondent, noted that having one "silent" heart attacks triples your chance of dying from heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the U.S. even though 80 percent of cases are preventable.
On "Good Morning, America," Ashton said a cardiologist can determine if you've had a silent heart attack by administering an electrocardiogram, a test that measures the heart's electrical activity.
But whether you're trying to prevent a heart attack, or recovering from one, the prescription is basically the same: “Eating a heart-healthy diet, being active, knowing your numbers and ... stop smoking," Ashton said.
The study was the second in as many years to show an alarming number of cardiac events that pass without treatment. Last year, a study conducted over a decade found that 80 percent of heart attacks had been undetected by both doctors and patients.
Writing on that study in STAT, Eric Boodman explained why people who feel chest discomfort should seek treatment, even if they think it could be nothing more than heartburn.
"Even the smallest heart attack leaves behind a scar, which is more fibrous than living muscle and won’t contract along with the rest of the organ. That makes the heart’s job harder and increases the risk of heart failure," Boodman wrote.
STAT also noted that doctors are discovering more silent heart attacks by using magnetic resonance imaging (better known as an MRI) which can abnormalities better than the more commonly used ECG or EKG, the two kinds of electrocardiograms. But MRIs are unlikely to replace EKGs as diagnostic tools because they're expensive.
“MRIs are costly, so we don’t anticipate screening people who are asymptomatic,” Dr. David Bluemke, director of radiology and imaging sciences at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md., told STAT.