February is Heart Month: Can you spot a heart attack?

24 Feb February is Heart Month: Can you spot a heart attack?

February is Heart Month and I was inspired to learn more about heart attacks when my 94 year old dad felt faint and called the emergency services at his assisted living community...for the second time this week.  Fortunately, he lives in a beautiful CCC community in Westchester County, NY, with red emergency buttons everywhere  to push at a moment's notice to receive help for real emergencies...or imagined. Thankfully his vitals were normal, no sign of a heart attack and all that was needed was some TLC and a glass of water.

The incident got me thinking.  How would I know if he was having a real heart attack, had low blood sugar or plain old indigestion? A heart attack does not always play out like a movie scene with an actor clutching their chest and falling down. No surprise, research shows that four in 10 people believe the symptoms and treatment of heart disease is what we see on the big screen.  This could be fatal if it causes us to miss the warning signs.

And not everyone has a defibrillator in their car to revive them like Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall.

Not everyone has a defibrillator in their car to revive them

like Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall.


What is a heart attack?

A heart attack strikes someone about every 43 seconds. It occurs when the oxygen-rich blood flow in your arteries to your heart is severely reduced or cut off completely. As there is a slow gradual buildup of plaque - fat, cholesterol and other substances - over time, called atherosclerosis, the arteries become more narrow. When plaque within a artery breaks, a blood clot forms and may block the blood flow to the heart muscle.

Ischemia results when the heart muscle is starved for oxygen and nutrients. When damage or death of part of the heart muscle occurs as a result of ischemia, it’s called a heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI).

The longer your heart has limited blood flow, the more damage occurs. Because silent heart attacks may go unnoticed, they can cause a significant amount of damage. And without treatment, can turn deadly.

What Does a Heart Attack Feel Like?

Take notice that every heart attack can present differently. While heart attacks can start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort of the chest, there also may  be discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness, or breaking out in a cold sweat.

A Hollywood Heart Attack

A  Hollywood heart attack can be different from a real one. The pain you experience from a heart attack may be much less dramatic — and it may not be very painful. Most heart attacks actually involve only mild pain or discomfort in the center of your chest.

A Silent Heart Attack

If you're having a painful heart attack, you already know to immediately call 9-1-1. If you don't have the telltale sign of sudden chest pain, uncomfortable chest pressure and squeezing, it can be misleading. This is called a silent heart attack because you don't even know you're having one. In addition, the silent signs may go away and then come back leading you to believe it is something else like indigestion.

The 4 silent signs of a heart attack:
  • Chest Pain, Pressure, Fullness, or Discomfort. ...
  • Discomfort in other areas of your body. ...
  • Difficulty breathing and dizziness. ...
  • Nausea and cold sweats.

Men's Symptoms Vs. Women's Symptoms

“Although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure,” said Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center and an American Heart Association volunteer. “Instead they may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue.”

Even though heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, women often chalk up the symptoms to less life-threatening conditions like acid reflux, the flu or normal aging.

“They do this because they are scared and because they put their families first,” Goldberg said. “There are still many women who are shocked that they could be having a heart attack.”

The Symptoms

1. Upper body discomfort

You feel pressure, tightness, heaviness, burning, squeezing, or aching in the chest that moves to the arms—everyone experiences it a little differently. Women are more likely than men to experience some of the other symptoms, particularly pain in the jaw and back.

2. Shortness of breath

You suddenly feel dizzy, lightheaded, and extremely weak. You start taking in deep breaths or are panting for air like you were just running, but you weren't.

3. Abdominal discomfort

You feel heartburn, indigestion, or pain in your stomach. You might have nausea and throw up.

4. Unusual fatigue

Your usual exercise routine leaves you worn out. You feel extremely tired, even with everyday activities like carrying the groceries.

5. Cold sweat

Your skin gets cold and clammy suddenly.

What to Do During a Heart Attack

If you think someone is having a heart attack, do not wait until more symptoms appear. A heart attack is a medical emergency, and can be deadly. The sooner a person gets treatment, the better chance they have at survival and recovery.

  • Call 9-1-1 right away. Don’t ignore or try to wait for the symptoms to go away. Paramedics are trained to treat people on the way to the hospital and offer the fastest transport there.
  • Chew and swallow aspirin. If able, have the person chew and swallow aspirin while waiting for the paramedics, unless they are allergic or have another medical condition that makes taking aspirin dangerous. If they are prescribed nitroglycerin, take one and chew and swallow it.
  • Have the person sit down, rest, and keep calm. 
  • Begin CPR. If the person is unconscious or unresponsive, you may be told by the 9-1-1 dispatcher to begin CPR. If you do not know how to give CPR, the dispatcher should be able to give you the correct steps to follow until help arrives or watch an online video if your iPhone is with you.

What Can You Do?

Take charge of you and your loved one's cardiovascular health and reach out to local heart healthy programs in your area. And sign up for a CPR class today!

Westchester, Fairfield and Nassau County Cardiovascular Programs

To learn more about coronary artery disease prevention and treatment and how to recognize a heart attack, reach out to local cardiology programs in Westchester, Fairfield and Nassau Counties.
In an effort to combat cardiovascular disease, the Westchester County Department of Health supports prevention through heart healthy lifestyle changes. The information in these pages are designed to help reduce the incidence of heart disease in Westchester County by promoting regular physical activity and healthy eating habits. Use these tools to develop healthy lifestyles for you and your family.

Westchester, NY




Nassau County, NY


As always, if you have any questions about your senior loved one's health concerns, please reach out to our STEPS Home Care Director of Patient Care at 914.612.4800.