Nearly 1 in 2 adults in England do not feel confident in spotting signs of a heart attack

A new survey published today by NHS England has revealed a lack of confidence among the public in recognising the symptoms of a heart attack, with nearly half (45%) of adults saying they were not confident they could recognise the signs, rising to over half (51%) in those aged over 55 – who are more at risk.

Furthermore, over a third (36%) claimed they would not call 999 if they or a loved one were experiencing chest pain – the most common symptom of a heart attack.

The findings come as part of NHS England’s ongoing Help Us, Help You campaign to raise awareness of heart attack symptoms and help save more lives, with TV GP Dr Chris George joining the health service’s call for anyone experiencing symptoms to call 999 immediately.

People’s chances of surviving a heart attack are far higher if they seek care earlier – overall around 7 in 10 people survive a heart attack, which increases to more than 9 in 10 for those who reach hospital early to receive treatment.

In a new film released today, Dr Chris took to the streets to investigate the general public’s knowledge of heart attacks and met with two survivors – Asif and Gemma – for a ‘heart to heart’ to hear about the symptoms they experienced.

TV GP Dr Chris George said: “It’s so important for people to be able to recognise the potential signs of a heart attack. We know that symptoms of a heart attack don’t always feel severe and can vary from person to person, but if you think you or somebody you’re with is having a heart attack, don’t be tempted to dismiss the signs or wait to see what happens. It’s never too early to call 999 and describe your symptoms.”

Heart Attack survivor Gemma Renault, from Nottingham, said: “I had a heart attack earlier this year and at first experienced a deep pain in the middle of my chest, which spread across my throat, up to my jaw and across the back of my arms, followed by a squeezing feeling in my stomach which eventually became unbearable. I thought it was exercise pains and didn’t realise I’d had a heart attack until doctors in hospital confirmed it.

“As soon as I was diagnosed, I was fitted with a stent and I’m happy to say I’ve made great progress in my recovery – I’m back in the gym and attending cardiac rehabilitation sessions regularly. My symptoms didn’t seem serious at first, which meant I didn’t seek help straight away, but I’d encourage anyone who ever experiences symptoms like mine to always call 999 – the faster you act, the better your chances.”

Heart attack survivor Asif Haque, from London said: “On the first day back at school, where I work as an English teacher, I experienced intense pain in my neck and in my stomach. I thought I had really bad food poisoning. I went home, slept, and returned to work the next day, and the next and the next.

“On the third day, I knew something wasn’t quite right and went to hospital. I thought I was healthy, I don’t smoke or drink, so you can imagine my surprise when they told me I was having a heart attack. They quickly fitted a stent, and my recovery has since been good. I would urge anyone experiencing these symptoms to dial 999 and describe your symptoms straight away. If I had done so, 30% of my damaged heart tissue could have been saved”

The new survey also shows that there is real confusion between heart attack and cardiac arrest – with nearly three-quarters (72%) of respondents saying they are unaware of the difference between the two and over half (51%) wrongly believing a cardiac arrest is another name for a heart attack.

A heart attack occurs when the supply of blood to the heart becomes blocked, which can starve it of oxygen, potentially causing serious muscle damage, but the person will be conscious and breathing.

A cardiac arrest is different – it usually occurs suddenly and without warning with the person quickly losing consciousness. Their heart stops, they will have no pulse and sadly people experiencing a cardiac arrest will usually die within minutes if they do not receive treatment. A heart attack can lead to a cardiac arrest.

Professor Nick Linker, cardiologist and NHS England’s national clinical director for heart disease, said: “Heart disease is one of the biggest killers in the UK, but we know that 9 in 10 people will survive a heart attack if they reach hospital early – which is why it is so crucial that people are aware of the symptoms of a heart attack and act upon them.

“Every moment that passes during a heart attack increases heart muscle damage and nearly all of this damage occurs in the first few hours of an attack, so if you experience pain or squeezing across your chest, accompanied with a feeling of unease, it’s vital to call 999 and check your symptoms.”

A lack of blood to the heart may seriously damage the heart muscle and can be life threatening, which is why NHS England is encouraging the public to call 999 immediately if you or someone you’re with might be having a heart attack.

While the most common symptom is chest pain, symptoms can vary from person to person.

Other symptoms of a heart attack can include:

  • A feeling of pain, pressure, heaviness, tightness or squeezing across your chest
  • pain in other parts of the body – such as in the arms (usually the left arm, but it can affect both arms), jaw, neck, back and tummy
  • feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • sweating
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling sick (nausea) or being sick (vomiting)
  • an overwhelming feeling of anxiety (similar to a panic attack)
  • coughing or wheezing

The latest NHS figures show that there were more than 84,000 hospital heart attack admissions in England during 2021/22, up by more than 7,000 compared to the previous year when fewer people came forward for care during the pandemic.

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