Is It a Heart Attack?

The term “silent heart attack” refers to when a person has a heart attack but didn’t know. Surprisingly, a study published recently in Circulation, the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that 45% of heart attacks happen without people being fully aware.1 The problem is that silent heart attacks cause just as much damage and risk as any other heart attack.

A heart attack happens when some of the blood supply to the heart is blocked and the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen and nutrients. Heart attacks damage the muscle tissue. That muscle tissue may die and be replaced with less flexible scar tissue.

Silent heart attacks do not cause the classic symptoms of chest or arm pain. Symptoms tend to be more general and easy to attribute to other causes. Many people with a silent heart attack think they just have a case of the flu or fatigue. Other symptoms may include shortness of breath and/or pain in the back or arms that feels like a sprained muscle.

People who have had a heart attack prove three times more likely to die of heart disease and 34% more likely to die of any cause. However, these risks can be managed and reduced. 2

Doctors can detect silent heart attacks after the incident, during an emergency department visit, an EKG, or even a routine doctor visit. So, get routine wellness exams and speak up if you have experienced any of the symptoms of a silent heart attack. Your doctor may want to evaluate you for surgery to remove blockages, prescribe a blood thinner, or recommend other courses to protect your health and longevity.


  1. Zhang ZM, Rautaharju PM, Prineas RJ, Rodriguez CJ, Loehr L, Rosamond WD, Kitzman D, Couper D, Soliman EZ. Race and sex differences in the incidence and prognostic significance of silent myocardial infarction in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study. Circulation. 2016 May 16:CIRCULATIONAHA-115.
  2. Silent Myocardial Infarction and Long-Term Risk of Heart Failure: The ARIC Study. Qureshi WT, Zhang ZM, Chang PP, Rosamond WD, Kitzman DW, Wagenknecht LE, Soliman EZ.J Am Coll Cardiol. 2018 Jan 2;71(1):1-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2017.10.071.
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