Would you recognise a heart attack? The signs and symptoms to look out for

Jun 28, 2022
Source: Getty

It’s scary to think that something as significant as a heart attack could be just around the corner but being prepared for when or if the time comes could help you best manage the situation as it’s happening.

Alarmingly, heart attacks are responsible for causing almost one in 20 deaths which equates to one person dying of a heart attack every 74 minutes, or on average 19 people every day.

Twice as many men experience heart attacks compared to females. Overall, 1.6 per cent of people will experience a heart attack sometime in their life, equating to 375,000 Australians.

According to The Heart Foundation Australia, “A heart attack occurs when a coronary artery, which supplies blood to your heart, becomes blocked”, resulting in a number of undesirable signs and symptoms. Heart attacks are a common symptom of cardiovascular disease such as coronary heart disease, heart failure, arrhythmias and angina, to name some.

Given the occurrence of heart attacks among Australians is so alarmingly high, Starts at 60 have put together a detailed explainer on how to recognise a heart attack, the symptoms to be on the lookout for, and how certain lifestyle factors could be contributing to an increased/decreased risk of a heart attack and tips on how to best manage your heart health.

What are some of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack?

Some of the most common warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack include chest discomfort, pain and/or pressure, dizziness/light-headedness, nausea, indigestion, vomiting, shortness of breath/difficulty breathing and sweating or a cold sweat. Although every individual will experience different symptoms, it’s important to understand that the signs and symptoms of a heart attack can differ greatly between men and women.

According to the Heart Foundation Australia, “Chest pain is the most common heart attack symptom in both women and men. This can feel like uncomfortable pressure, aching, numbness, or squeezing.”

“Women are more likely than men to experience the non-chest pain symptoms. Non-chest pain symptoms include pain in other parts of the body like the jaw, shoulder or back, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, nausea or vomiting, dizziness or light-headedness, or sweating.”

Men, on the other hand, have been reported to suffer most predominantly from symptoms including chest pain/discomfort, shortness of breath and nausea.


Why do heart attack symptoms differ between men and women?

There are a number of factors that could contribute to why men predominantly experience different heart attack symptoms than women. For one, men and women have different biological makeup and according to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, “compared to men, women have smaller hearts and narrower blood vessels”.

Women can also experience a cholesterol build-up in different parts of their bodies, with men predominantly storing build up in their “largest arteries that supply blood top the heart” and women, in the “heart’s smallest blood vessels, known as microvasculature”, says Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“Heart attack symptoms in women and men can differ depending on the severity of the heart attack and the underlying cause.”

According to The Heart Foundation Australia, “Women are more likely than men to experience a condition called spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), which can cause a heart attack. This happens when a layer in the wall of the coronary artery splits and fills with blood, reducing blood supply to the heart muscle. We know that women with SCAD are more likely to experience the non-chest pain symptoms of a heart attack. 

“Women are also more likely to experience a heart attack later in life than men, which can affect the symptoms they experience.”


How much higher is the risk of a heart attack for those over 55 and why?

It’s no secret that as we age, the more prone we are to developing illness and chronic health conditions. According to the Heart Foundation Australia, “many people don’t realise that one of the biggest risk factors for heart attack is age. As we get older, damage to our blood vessels builds up over time, and can become stiffer and more prone to plaque build-up. This increases a person’s risk of heart attack.”

“The proportion of people experiencing heart attack or angina increases with age; from around 1% in people aged 45-54, to up to 14% in people aged 75 years and over.”

The Heart Foundation Australia assures people that despite the inevitable reality of ageing, it’s never too early or late to take control of your health.

“The good news is it’s never too early or late to manage your risk of heart disease and improve your heart health. While you can’t change your age, there are plenty of risk factors that you can manage, like your blood pressure, cholesterol, physical activity levels and eating pattern.”


What factors could be responsible for increasing the risk of a heart attack? And how could these be managed?

Like any chronic condition, the risk of experiencing a heart attack can increase or decrease as a result of positive and negative lifestyle factors and despite your age, there are a number of measures that can be undertaken to better manage your heart health.

“The good news is that whatever stage of life you are at, there are things you can do to protect your heart health. These include following a heart-healthy eating pattern, being physically active, quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy weight,” the Heart Foundation Australia explained.

Some of the more traditional risk factors, according to the Heart Foundation include, “high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, poor diet and not being physically active enough”.

“There are also women-specific risk factors for heart disease,” says the Heart Foundation Australia.

“These include premature or early menopause, polycystic ovarian syndrome, or a history of pregnancy conditions like pre-eclampsia or gestational diabetes.”

Despite the severity of these pre-existing conditions and their link to an increased risk of a heart attack, there are options available to manage and potentially prevent experiencing a heart attack. One such preventable measure is regular heart health checks.


Who is eligible for a heart health check and how often should it be done?

Given that 1.4 million Australians are faced with a significant risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next five years and that many are unaware of their risk it is imperative that Australians are undertaking regular heart health checks to manage the risk.

An appointment with your GP will not only help you gain a greater understanding of your risk of suffering a heart attack but also provide you the support you need to make effective health choices to lower your risk.

According to The Heart Foundation Australia, “Women and men are eligible for an annual Heart Health Check with their GP from age 45 years and over (or 30 years and over for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Peoples)”. 

“A Heart Health Check is a 20-minute check-up with your GP to work out your risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next five years.

“As part of a Heart Health Check, your doctor will ask you about your medical and family history of heart disease as well as your lifestyle, including your diet, physical activity, and if you smoke or drink alcohol.

“Your GP will also check your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. They take this information and use it to calculate your risk of a heart attack or stroke. More importantly, your GP will then discuss the steps you can take to start lowering your risk.”

“The Check is for people who haven’t previously had a heart attack or stroke but might be at risk of one. The Check can be repeated every 12 months which means people’s risk can be monitored.”

Fortunately, the Heart Health Check is subsidised by Medicare which will mean no out-of-pocket expense for those visiting a practice that doesn’t bulk bill. However, the Heart Foundation Australia advises that “it’s best to check how much you will need to pay when making your appointment.” 


IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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