Silent heart attacks are more common than recognized heart attacks in older adults, but they can happen at any age, according to new research.
The finding comes from a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Frank Burke, 45, told Local 10 he had never heard of a silent heart attack until doctors told him he survived one.
"I had no idea of course," said Burke.
Doctors made the diagnosis when Burke came in for a routine procedure in 2011.
"They were running some tests and told me it was clear I'd had a heart attack about eight months earlier," he said.
Ironically, people at risk for a silent heart attack can appear to be perfectly healthy. Dr. Michael Shen, a cardiologist with the Cleveland Clinic Florida, told Local 10 that's why doctors usually categorize silent heart attack victims as "non-complainers."
"If they have something, they think, 'Oh, I'm out of shape,' so even if they have symptoms, they don't contribute these symptoms to their heart," Shen said. "They say, 'Oh, I need more work out,' rather than say, 'I might have a heart problem.'"
The symptoms of a silent heart attack are what Shen calls atypical.
"This is not the usual chest pain, sweating, and radiating arm pain," said Shen.
Instead, people suffering from a silent heart attack may have shortness of breath on exertion, which they could mistakenly attribute to their activity level. Patients may also have stomach discomfort, which might be dismissed as simply something they ate. Another atypical symptom is light-headedness, which can be passed off as fatigue.
"I would feel a weird sensation in my chest, a vibration that felt like gas or something," said Burke. "I would go buy a Sprite soda, I would drink it, I would burp, I would feel fine and I would continue on what I was doing and just never pay attention to it."
Shen said if a patient has atypical symptoms combined with heart disease risk factors such as high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure or smoking, they could be referred for some form of cardiac imaging.
"Imaging will reflect the whole process of the heart attack from the acute phase to the delayed phase so you can see the whole process that's involved," he said.
Through diet and exercise, Burke is making every effort to protect against another silent heart attack.
"I'm keeping a binder of all my medical history. I'm taking medication like I'm supposed to. I'm back to working out a bit," he said. "I definitely pay closer attention now."