What are the signs of a heart attack? How to know if you’re at risk

What are the signs of a heart attack? How to know if you're at risk

  • The main signs of a heart attack are oppressive discomfort or heaviness in the center of the chest, paired with discomfort in the neck, throat, jaw, and the left side of the chest or arm.
  • Women and older adults may experience subtler signs of a heart attack such as unusual fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, cold sweats, or indigestion.
  • If you feel these symptoms – especially if you also have common risk factors for a heart attack – you should call 911 and seek medical attention immediately.
  • This article was reviewed by Steven Reisman, MD, a cardiologist and the director of New York Cardiac Diagnostic Center.

In the U.S., someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But contrary to popular belief, chest pain is not always present during a heart attack.

Here’s what you need to know about the main warning signs and risk factors of a heart attack.

These are the main signs of a heart attack

According to Purvi Parwani, MD, and director of the Women’s Heart Health Clinic at Loma Linda University International Heart Institute, you should seek medical attention immediately if experiencing the following symptoms:

  • An oppressive discomfort or heaviness in the chest, typically in the center of the chest.
  • Chest discomfort that is also paired with discomfort in other areas of the upper body, like the neck, throat, jaw, and left side of the chest and arm.

However, in women and older adults, the earliest symptoms are often more subtle than chest discomfort, says Richard Wright, MD, a cardiologist at Pacific Heart Institute.

Women are more likely to experience nausea, shortness of breath, indigestion, unusual fatigue, and cold sweats with a heart attack because they often experience blockages in smaller blood vessels, not just in their main arteries. They are also typically older when they have their first heart attack. Women experience their first heart attack at around age 72 whereas for men it’s closer to 65.

How to know if you’re at risk of a heart attack

Even before you experience any symptoms, there are a few key risk factors that may increase your likelihood of having a heart attack.

For example, growing older is associated with an increased build-up of plaque in the arteries, which leads to a greater risk of a heart attack. There are also many lifestyle factors associated with an increased risk of heart disease, like frequently smoking cigarettes or not exercising regularly.

Other conditions that may increase heart attack risk include:

  • Family history of heart disease, with a father or brother who had a heart attack before the age of 55 and a mother or sister who had a heart attack before 65.
  • High cholesterol causes plaque to build up on the walls of the arteries, which can lead to decreased blood flow and blocked arteries.
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure), when left untreated, can damage your blood vessels and your heart.
  • Obesity was recently linked with an increased risk for multiple heart attacks by a study published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology.
  • Diabetes can damage blood vessels over time, and the risk of heart disease increases the longer you have diabetes.
  • Elevated levels of C-reactive protein occur when there is inflammation in the body (often indicating a chronic disease) and can increase your chance of heart attack by three times.

That being said, it is entirely possible to have a heart attack without these traditional risk factors, according to Parwani.

And even though older people are more likely to have a heart attack, Parwani says that no one should assume they are too young – individuals under the age of 45 still account for 4% to 10% of all heart attacks in the US, according to Harvard Men’s Health Watch.

“Generally, there is no difference [in symptoms] between younger and older individuals,” Parwani says. However, older people with another disease like diabetes may be more likely to have a silent heart attack or one without any obvious symptoms.

If you’re experiencing any symptoms of a heart attack – no matter how small – seek medical attention immediately. Wright recommends contacting a medical professional, going to an emergency room, or calling for paramedic assistance.

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