'Hollywood' Heart Attack vs. Real Life

Reality Doesn't Always Match the Chest-Clutching Hollywood Image

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on January 23, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 24, 2006 -- They call it the "Hollywood Heart Attack" -- the actor clutching his chest before keeling over. But in real life, most people are clueless about actual symptoms of a heart attack, a new poll shows.

The survey was conducted in December 2005 by Harris Interactive for PDL BioPharma, whose products include drugs to treat heart attacks.

Participants were 2,515 U.S. adults. More than half had been diagnosed with a heart attack or had a friend or family member who had had a heart attack (1,370 participants).

You might expect them to ace the survey. They didn't. See if you would do any better on the following questions, which cover the same topics as the poll.

Pop Quiz

Which symptom is not present during a heart attack:

  • Chest discomfort
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Pain or soreness in the arm, neck, or back that lasts several minutes
  • Feeling sick to your stomach
  • None of the above

True or false: Waiting to see if symptoms subside is the first thing you should do if you or someone you're with is having heart attack symptoms.


True or false: Once a heart attack starts, it can't be stopped.

The answers are:

  • None of the above. All of the listed symptoms can warn of a heart attack, but they don't always mean a heart attack is happening.
  • False. When signs of a possible heart attack appear, that's no time for a do-it-yourself diagnosis or toughing it out. Emergency medical treatment (usually calling 911) is a must.
  • False. Swift treatment can stop a heart attack from doing more damage.

Many Heart Attacks Went Undetected

More than four in 10 people who took the poll -- 44% -- didn't choose calling 911 as the first step for handling a suspected heart attack. The majority also flunked questions about the subtler symptoms of heart attacks.

In short, the poll showed that many people picture heart attacks as a dramatic, chest-clutching moment. But heart attacks don't always happen that way.

Many participants who had been directly affected by heart attacks -- or had a friend or relative who was affected -- admitted that they hadn't immediately sought medical help. The leading reason for that was not realizing that a heart attack was happening.


Of those who had been diagnosed with a heart attack or who knew a friend or family member who had had a heart attack, 35% said they called 911 for immediate medical attention when those heart attacks started.

When it came to identifying heart attack symptoms, more than eight in 10 participants correctly chose chest pain as a warning sign. Far fewer -- roughly a quarter to a third -- recognized stomach, neck, back, and jaw discomfort as possible symptoms.

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SOURCE: News release, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Harris Report Survey Results.
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