Cardiologist: Pay attention to your heart on Valentine’s Day

WASHINGTON — On Valentine’s Day, it’s easy to tell if you have a broken heart, but lots of actual, silent heart attacks go undetected.

As many as one in four heart attacks are ignored for various reasons; experts warn that allowing them to go unaddressed increases the risk for permanent heart damage or death.

“Valentine’s Day is the day to love your heart,” said Dr. Allen J. Taylor, chief of cardiology at MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute. “If things aren’t right, get checked out.”

Taylor said reasons silent heart attacks can go unnoticed include:

  • Silent heart attacks often pose no symptoms.
  • They can often be mistaken for heartburn.
  • Silent heart attacks can be interpreted as muscle pain.
  • Silent heart attacks may be mistaken as simply not feeling well.

Those especially at risk for silent heart attacks are people with prior heart disease, diabetes patients and the elderly — older women in particular.

“Women live longer than men and their heart disease presents later than men,” Taylor said. “There’s also some concern that women sometimes ignore symptoms. They’re the caregivers, not the care receivers. So, there’s a cultural barrier to recognition.”

Silent heart attacks take their toll. They damage heart tissue and increase the risk for subsequent and traditional heart attacks. What’s medically referred to as silent myocardial infarctions, or silent MI, can be identified easily with an electrocardiogram.

“Fantastically simple test: You have some stickies placed on your chest and arms and legs and, in just a few seconds, the electrical activity of your heart is shown,” Taylor said.

“So, when should you ask for one?” Taylor asked rhetorically.

“When you’re not feeling quite right; you’ve had some unexplained indigestion, maybe you’ve been more out of breath lately. Those could be triggers that there’s something going on you want to check out.”

Risk factors for silent heart attacks mirror those for traditional heart attacks: They include smoking, sedentary lifestyle, family history, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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