How Much Do You Really Know About Heart Disease?

Survey Finds Americans Don't Know Symptoms or What to Do in an Emergency

Source: Cleveland Clinic Survey. Animation by Hetal Rathod. © Verywell, 2018. 

Every year, 735,000 Americans have a heart attack and 350,000 suffer an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. Many of these situations could be prevented if people recognized the symptoms and knew what actions to take.

Sadly, a recent Cleveland Clinic survey revealed that the majority of Americans know nothing or very little about heart disease. In fact, only 49 percent of Americans know about the health of their own heart. And 22 percent said they’d rather look at Instagram or read about their favorite celebrity than learn about it. Even 56 percent of men know more about their favorite sports team than about heart health.

This lack of interest in America’s leading killer may mean the difference between life and death. If you don’t know your risk for heart disease, you cannot take steps to prevent it. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.

Let’s see if we can clear up some of the confusion around certain heart health basics and help you stay informed.

Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest

Nine in 10 survey responders didn’t know the difference between heart attack and cardiac arrest. And almost 60 percent confused some of the symptoms of a heart attack with those of a stroke.

To put it simply, a heart attack occurs when a clot blocks an artery supplying the heart muscle. Cardiac arrest is an electrical malfunction that causes the heart to beat wildly, causing death unless immediate action is taken.

Heart Attack

When clogged coronary arteries begin to interfere with blood flow to the heart muscle, the muscle responds by cramping. This produces the pain with exercise known as angina.  

Angina is a signal that blood flow is compromised. As fatty deposits in the arteries grow, less and less blood is able to get through. If a blood clot completely blocks the flow, a heart attack occurs.

The symptoms of heart attack can be vague and can be different in women than in men. However, the vast majority of people of both sexes feel a gripping pain in the center of their chest that often radiates to the left arm, both arms, or jaw. The sensation is often accompanied by shortness of breath or nausea.

If you experience a sudden onset of discomfort and it lasts more than five minutes, you should err on the side of caution and call 911. Do not attempt to drive yourself to the hospital. Do not wait for someone else to drive you. Do not call your healthcare provider first. Call 911.

While you are waiting for the ambulance to arrive, it is reasonable to chew an aspirin. Aspirin may help break up the blood clot.

Cardiac Arrest

Among survey responders, only 14 percent of men and 6 percent of women knew that electricity keeps their heart beating in rhythm. When the heart starts beating too fast, it will quiver rather than pump and the person will pass out. This is cardiac arrest.

Cardiac arrest is a time-sensitive emergency. Immediate CPR can make the difference between life and death, doubling or even tripling the person’s chance of survival. If you see someone collapse, check for a pulse. If the person is unconscious and has no pulse, start CPR.

CPR is a skill that can be easily learned, but 46 percent of survey responders said they didn’t know it. The vast majority, 85 percent, were unaware that bystander CPR on an adult requires only chest compressions. (We encourage everyone to learn this skill. Keep your eye open for a local class.)

Ultimately, CPR is only used to keep blood flowing until the heart’s proper rhythm can be restored with shock paddles (defibrillators). Many public places and businesses have automated external defibrillations (AEDs) for this purpose.

According to the survey, of those who say there is an AED at their place of work, 88 percent know where it is located and 68 percent know how to use it.

AEDs are very smart. When the paddles are placed on someone’s chest, they will analyze the heart’s rhythm and tell you whether it's a shockable rhythm or not. They will only deliver a shock if it’s appropriate. So, don’t be afraid to use an AED, it may save someone’s life.

Know the Symptoms

Nearly 60 percent of survey responders thought that sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg were signs of heart attack. And nearly 40 percent associated slurred speech with heart attack. These are actually signs of stroke.

The underlying cause of stroke and heart attack is the same. However, in a stroke, the blocked arteries are located in the head and a clot cuts off blood supply to the brain. That’s why it is sometimes called a “brain attack.”

Additional symptoms include confusion, sudden trouble walking, swallowing, or chewing, and loss of coordination or vision. Should this happen to you or someone you know, call 911 immediately. The faster a stroke is treated—typically within the first three hours—the better the outcome.

Take Action

Are you one of the 49 percent of Americans who know little or nothing about your own heart? Don’t wait for a heart attack or cardiac arrest to occur to learn that it could have been prevented.

Start by finding out your family history of cardiovascular disease. Ask which relatives might have had a heart attack or stroke and note their age and gender. This will help determine your personal risk. At your next visit, give this information to your healthcare provider.

Also, ask your healthcare provider to take your blood pressure and LDL cholesterol levels. If you are overweight, inquire about your blood sugar levels, too. Then discuss with your doctor if you might be a candidate for blood pressure-, blood sugar-, or cholesterol-lowering medication. Treating these modifiable risk factors can put you in control of your health and greatly lower the chance that someone will ever have to call 911 for you.