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difference between heart attack and cardiac arrest

Poll finds that 1 in 3 Canadians don’t know the difference between heart attack and cardiac arrest.

1 in 3 Canadians can’t tell the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest, according to a recent poll by the Heart and Stroke Foundation. This highlights the need for more education on heart health. A heart attack and cardiac arrest are often used interchangeably but they are two distinct conditions. A heart attack is caused by a blockage in one or more coronary arteries, while cardiac arrest happens when the heart unexpectedly stops beating due to an electrical malfunction. Knowing the difference between the two can help save lives.

About the Poll

The Heart and Stroke Foundation poll was conducted online in January 2023 with a representative sample of 1,512 Canadians aged 18 and above.

Participants were asked questions to gauge their ability to differentiate between the main symptoms and required emergency responses for a heart attack versus cardiac arrest.

Some key findings from the poll results:

  • 33% of respondents could not correctly identify the main symptoms of a heart attack.
  • 36% did not know to call 9-1-1 immediately if someone is suspected of having a heart attack.
  • 41% incorrectly believed that they were the same thing.
  • 28% could not recognize sudden loss of consciousness and lack of pulse as the main signs of cardiac arrest.
  • 31% did not know that CPR should be performed if someone goes into cardiac arrest.

Overall, the poll highlighted some critical knowledge gaps when it comes to these two circulatory emergencies that require urgent action.

Understanding Heart Attacks

A heart attack occurs when a coronary artery becomes blocked, usually due to plaque buildup. This restricts blood flow to the heart, causing chest pain or discomfort. If the plaque ruptures, it can fully block the blood supply to the heart, leading to the death of cardiac muscle cells. The main symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, and sweating.

  • Chest pain or discomfort – This may feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or stabbing pain in the center or left side of the chest. It can also radiate to the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back.
  • Shortness of breath – The heart is not pumping efficiently due to damage, so oxygen levels fall. This causes difficulty breathing.
  • Nausea, vomiting, sweating, dizziness – The body reacts to the heart not working normally.
  • Anxiety and denial – Some people do not accept they are having a heart attack. The emotional stress also triggers physical reactions.

If a heart attack is suspected, it is crucial to call emergency medical services immediately. Waiting reduces the chance of surviving and minimizing heart damage. Treatment focuses on restoring blood flow as quickly as possible, either by medication or procedures such as angioplasty and stenting to open the blocked coronary artery.

Understanding Cardiac Arrest

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops functioning due to a life-threatening arrhythmia. The two most common types of arrhythmia that cause cardiac arrest are ventricular fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia. These arrhythmias disrupt the electrical impulses that control muscle contractions needed to circulate blood. Symptoms of cardiac arrest include:

  • Sudden collapse and loss of consciousness
  • No pulse
  • No normal breathing

Cardiac arrest requires immediate CPR and defibrillation for the best chance of survival. Calling emergency medical services is vital as it can lead to irreversible brain damage and death within minutes if prompt action is not taken.

Why the Confusion between heart attack and cardiac arrest?

There are several reasons why people are confused

  • Shared risk factors – Smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, family history of heart disease, and older age increase the risk for both conditions.
  • Heart attack can lead to arrest – In some cases, a heart attack triggers ventricular fibrillation and cardiac arrest. The underlying cause is different, but arrest is the final, fatal consequence in about 10% of heart attacks.
  • General lack of public awareness – Many people use the terms “heart attack” and “cardiac arrest” interchangeably in everyday language. They may not realize these are distinct emergencies requiring different interventions.
  • Focus on heart health – Educational efforts tend to group all cardiovascular conditions under one umbrella rather than highlighting the unique features and required responses for it.
  • Non-specific symptoms – Warning signs like chest pain, shortness of breath, and nausea can occur with many other less serious medical conditions. People may not recognize these as emergency heart symptoms that require urgent action.

Regardless of the reasons, the inability of 1 in 3 Canadians to differentiate between these two circulatory emergencies demonstrates an urgent need for more public education. Knowing how to recognize and act quickly when someone experiences a heart attack or cardiac arrest can save lives.

The Importance of Public Education

Recognizing the signs and seeking immediate emergency care can save lives. Yet, many Canadians lack this knowledge, according to a recent poll by the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Public education must focus on differentiating symptoms and clarifying necessary emergency responses. For a suspected heart attack, act fast:

  • Call 9-1-1 immediately. Early treatment is critical to save heart muscle and prevent death.
  • Have the person stop any activity and rest comfortably.
  • Loosen any tight clothing and provide reassurance.
  • Be prepared to provide CPR and use an AED if the heart attack leads to cardiac arrest.

For cardiac arrest, people must:

  • Call 9-1-1.
  • Begin hands-only CPR, pushing hard and fast in the center of the chest at a rate of 100 to 120 compressions per minute.
  • Use an AED as soon as possible to restore a normal heart rhythm.
  • Continue CPR until paramedics arrive.

Public awareness campaigns are needed to educate people about the differences between heart attacks and cardiac arrest. Hands-on CPR and AED training can give people the skills and confidence to act quickly in an emergency. The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s poll found that 1 in 3 Canadians are unable to differentiate between these two major circulatory events, highlighting the urgent need for more education. With increased awareness and understanding, more lives can be saved.


  1. Heart and Stroke Foundation. “Poll results: Heart attack vs cardiac arrest.” Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada. https://www.heartandstroke.ca/articles/poll-results-heart-attack-vs-cardiac-arrest
  2. Mayo Clinic. “Heart attack vs. cardiac arrest: what’s the difference?” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 2022. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-attack/in-depth/heart-attack-vs-cardiac-arrest/art-20044973
  3. American Heart Association. “Heart Attack”. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack
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  7. Harvard Health Publishing. “Heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest: How are they different?” Harvard Medical School, 2022. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/heart-attack-or-sudden-cardiac-arrest-how-are-they-different
  8. Heart and Stroke Foundation. “CPR”. https://www.heartandstroke.ca/articles/cpr