A new study found that 20% of Americans cannot identify the top three symptoms of a heart attack and most likely will not call 9-1-1 if they are experiencing an episode.


The study looked at data from the 2017 National Health Interview Survey, an annual survey of U.S. adults. It appeared in the Dec. 18 edition of JAMA Open Network.


“More than 13 million people were not aware of a single symptom of a heart attack,” said Khurram Nasir, M.D., division chief of cardiovascular prevention and wellness with Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center and the study’s lead author. “More than 19 million did not consider chest pain or discomfort in arms or shoulders as a symptom. These numbers are alarming.”


The top five symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Pain in the arms or shoulders.
  • Feeling lightheaded or weak
  • Pain in the back, neck and jaw.


Nasir says minorities, the uninsured, people with lower education and lower socio-economic status and those who are not U.S. citizens were most likely to not recognize the symptoms of a heart attack or call for help. About 500,000 Americans fall into these categories.


“These numbers should be a wakeup call for the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology, health care systems and other groups that we need to do a better job of educating the public about heart attack symptoms,” Nasir said.


According to the AHA nearly 630,000 Americans die every year from a heart attack. Nasir believes those numbers can be reduced dramatically.


“People who recognize these symptoms early might be able to stave off a trip to the ER and instead see their doctor who can refer them to a cardiologist,” Nasir said. “The cardiologist might recognize blockages and recommend a procedure to reopen them. Education is the key. Many lives can be saved if people know what to look for when it comes to identifying a heart attack.”


Other researchers collaborating on this paper included Shiwani Mahajan, MBBS; Javier Valero-Elizondo, M.D., MPH; Rohan Khera, M.D.; Nihar R. Desai, M.D., MPH; Ron Blankstein, M.D.; Michael J. Blaha, M.D., MPH; Salim S. Virani, M.D., Ph.D.; Bita A. Kash, Ph.D., MBA; William A. Zoghbi, M.D. and Harlan M. Krumholz, M.D., SM.


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