Half of Americans can’t identify the major symptoms of heart attack

Just half of Americans know the five common heart attack symptoms—even when presented with the symptoms as “yes” or “no” answers—based on 2017 results from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS).

“CDC and other federal agencies … have promoted awareness of and response to heart attacks through public health messaging campaigns and improved early identification of heart attack symptoms when entering the emergency response system,” wrote CDC researchers led by Jim Fang, MD, who published their report online Feb. 8.

“Despite these promotion efforts, general knowledge about the symptoms of a heart attack remain suboptimal. Consistent messaging campaigns should be complemented with regular contact with a healthcare provider because screening and evaluation might lead to early intervention.”

Using NHIS data, the study sought to characterize the proportion of U.S. adults who were aware of the five common symptoms of heart attack in 2008, 2014 and 2017. Those symptoms include:

  1. Jaw pain or discomfort
  2. Feeling weak, lightheaded or faint
  3. Chest pain or discomfort
  4. Pain or discomfort in the arm or shoulder
  5. Shortness of breath

More than 21,000 individuals were surveyed each year. The percentage of respondents who said they knew about all five of those symptoms when presented with them as “yes” or “no” answers grew from 39.6 percent in 2008 to 50 percent in 2014 and 50.2 percent in 2017. Likewise, the percentage of adults who knew to call 9-1-1 or another emergency number as the first action to take if someone was having a heart attack increased from 91.8 percent in 2008 to 94.9 percent in 2017.

Fang et al. found knowledge about heart attack symptoms was lower among men, younger adults, racial minorities and those with lower levels of educational attainment compared to women, whites, older respondents and those with at least a high school education.

The survey answers were self-reported, which exposes the results to possible recall and social desirability bias, the authors noted. Also, given that the symptoms were presented as yes/no responses and only the correct answers were included, there’s a chance participants’ knowledge was overestimated.

“Because of the high prevalence and significant health impact of heart attacks, awareness of the major signs and symptoms of a heart attack and the appropriate response to the event should be common knowledge among all adults,” the researchers wrote. “However, the suboptimal knowledge among U.S. adults identified in this study, especially among racial/ethnic minority groups, those with lower levels of education, and those with more CVD risk factors, highlight a need for enhanced and focused educational efforts.”