Almost half can't identify heart attack symptoms, study finds

Most people are generally aware of the symptoms of a heart attack, but do you think you could identify them if you were having a heart attack?

The recent high-profile deaths of cricketer Shane Warne and Labor senator Kimberley Kitching – both from heart attacks at age 52 – have highlighted the need for wide public awareness of the symptoms of cardiac arrest.

According to the Heart Foundation, the most common symptoms that precede a cardiac event include: chest pain or discomfort, dizziness or feeling light-headed, nausea and vomiting, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath and excessive sweating.

Most of us probably assume that if we were to suffer a heart attack, we’d be able to identify the symptoms quickly and call an ambulance. But that might not be the case.

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A study from the Royal Australian College of Physicians (RACP), published in The Internal Medicine Journal, has found that almost half of people aged 35 and over were not confident in their ability to recognise symptoms of impending cardiac risk while participating in strenuous exercise.

“Although regular exercise improves health, strenuous exercise causes a transient increase in cardiac risk,” says Professor Geoffrey Tofler, lead author of the study.

“Being able to recognise the warning signs of an impending cardiac event is critical to mitigating those risks during exercise. The risks are elevated when accounting for participants with pre-existing risk factors like hypercholesterolaemia, hypertension, smoker status, weight issues and family history of heart disease.”

The research team surveyed 153 football players aged 35 and over participating in games on a scale from social to competitive.

Of the 153, 49.6 per said they were not confident in their ability recognise heart attack symptoms in themselves and just 32.7 per cent said they could recognise the symptoms in others.

Read: Women receive worse treatment than men for heart attacks: study

One in five respondents said they had experienced potential cardiac symptoms in the preceding 12 months, but only a quarter (24.4 per cent) sought medical attention.

The research team found one third of respondents would be embarrassed if they presented at hospital with heart attack symptoms, but which turned out to be a false alarm.

Just over 60 per cent of respondents did not know that symptoms can precede a cardiac event by hours or even days and 67.3 per cent knew how to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

“In total, one in five study participants had one or more possible cardiac symptoms during a game in the prior year, but only a quarter of them sought medical attention,” Prof. Tofler says.

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“In a hypothetic scenario of participants having chest pain while playing, around half of them said they would keep playing for five to 10 minutes waiting for the symptoms to pass. Almost half of the participants were unsure whether they would recognise symptoms they might experience during games, such as chest pain, as an indicator of potentially serious cardiac risk.

“These are worrying statistics, especially when the risk increases with age. This risk is even greater in those who exercise infrequently or not at all.”

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Written by Brad Lockyer