A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Half of U.S. adults don’t know symptoms of heart attacks; Kentuckians have second highest risk


By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

About 50 percent of American adults don’t know the five common symptoms of a heart attack, even though a heart attack happens about every 40 seconds in the U.S., according to a recent study.

The five common symptoms of heart attack are pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back; feeling weak, lightheaded or faint; chest pain or discomfort; pain or discomfort in the arms or shoulder; and shortness of breath.

Other symptoms include unexplained tiredness and nausea and vomiting.

The study, published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Feb. 8 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found that while the number of U.S. adults who could list all five of these symptoms increased to 50.2 percent in 2017 from 39.6 percent in 2008, half the adults in the study couldn’t name them. Nearly 95 percent knew to call 911 if someone was having a heart attack. The data came from the National Health Interview Survey.

The study found that knowledge about the five heart attack symptoms was lower among men, young adults, racial and ethnic minorities, and persons with less than average education.

Heart attacks happen when part of the heart muscle doesn’t receive adequate blood flow. It’s important to call 911 immediately if you or someone you know is having a heart attack because the more time that passes without treatment to restore blood flow, the greater the risk to the heart.

In Kentucky, 6.5 percent of adults reported having had a heart attack, according to the 2017 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System annual survey. The national average was 4.2 percent. Kentucky ranks second highest for this measure, followed by West Virginia. The CDC reports that every year, about 790,000 Americans have a heart attack.

Click here for an interactive atlas of heart disease and stroke data for each county in Kentucky.

Coronary artery disease, or atherosclerosis, which is sometimes called hardening of the arteries, is the main cause of heart attack, the CDC says. The disease is caused by plaque buildup in the wall of the arteries that supply blood to the heart and other parts of the body, which causes the arteries to narrow over time and can partially or totally block the blood flow.

The CDC offers a list of things you can do to lower your chances of getting heart disease, including: eating a healthy diet, being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, limiting your alcohol intake, checking your cholesterol, controlling your blood pressure, managing your diabetes, having screening tests done that are recommended and taking medications to control your high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes.

It’s also important to find out who in your family has heart disease and to then share it with other family members and your health care providers because having close blood relatives with heart disease can also increase your risk of having a heart attack.


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