Feature Archive

Silent Symptoms

Becoming aware of unrecognized heart attacks.

WebMD Feature

Feb. 21, 2000 (San Francisco) -- You'd certainly know if you were having a heart attack, wouldn't you? After all, you couldn't possibly miss symptoms as unmistakable as crushing chest pain or extreme shortness of breath.

Or could you? As it turns out, more than one in five people over the age of 65 who have heart attacks have "unrecognized" ones, according to a study published in the January 2000 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Researchers evaluated nearly 6,000 men and women aged 65 and above. Of the 901 subjects in whom an electrocardiogram -- a test to record the electrical current that runs through the heart muscle -- indicated a prior heart attack, more than one fifth had had heart attacks that had gone undetected until the test was done. Most patients had no clear indications of cardiovascular disease when they started the study. These so-called "silent" heart attacks are of two types, says P. K. Shah, M.D., Director of Cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles. "One kind is truly silent -- it has no symptoms. The other has symptoms, but they are either very mild or are ignored because they are usually not associated with heart attacks, such as sweating or indigestion."

Because these silent heart attacks go undetected, they can't be treated. This increases the chances of underlying heart disease becoming more advanced and causing another, more serious heart attack. But with simple awareness, you can do much to reduce the risk of overlooking such a "silent" attack.