The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published a paper in its weekly report that caught my eye because it reminded me how much we take for granted. Being a cardiologist, I think about the symptoms of heart disease all day long, and so I've assumed that my friends and family are already aware of the symptoms of heart attacks. This new report suggests that I may have been wrong about this. So let me ask you, do you know the five warning signs of a heart attack?I will let you think for a bit about your answer, and while I do that I want to tell you why it is so important that you get this answer right. Heart disease is by far the most common cause of death and disability in the United States, and over a million people in the United States have a heart attack each year. Heart attacks occur suddenly, often in people who aren't aware that they have any heart problems, when blood clots form in diseased arteries that supply blood to heart muscle. One person in five who has a heart attack will die suddenly, and half the time this happens within the first hour after symptoms begin.People with heart attacks often have little warning that they are at risk. Having a normal blood pressure or cholesterol level does not abolish the threat of heart disease. Many women think that they are protected against heart attacks, but women are more likely than men to die of heart disease, and the symptoms of a heart attack can be more subtle and difficult to recognize in women than in men.The study that I read told me something remarkable: less than one person in three knows the five warning signs of a heart attack, and even fewer know what to do when these symptoms appear. Men are less likely than women to recognize the symptoms of heart disease, and Hispanics and African-Americans are also less likely to identify these warning signs. Those of us in the health care professions have clearly not done our job to educate people about this enormous problem.Now that I've raised the stakes, what are the symptoms that should alert you to the possibility of a heart attack? Many people recognize that shortness of breath or chest discomfort are important indicators that heart problems are possible. The other three symptoms -- discomfort in the arms or shoulders, feelings of weakness or lightheadedness and discomfort in the jaw, neck or back -- are much less likely to be associated with heart disease.Did you get all five? Most people are not able to recognize that these are the five most common symptoms of a heart attack. I also cannot emphasize enough that these symptoms may be subtle, such as a new sensation of tightness in the jaw or a feeling of lightheadedness may be the only clue. The classic portrait of a heart attack -- think of Don Corleone clutching his chest in The Godfather -- is unfortunately the exception rather than the rule.It won't help you to know these symptoms if you don't know what to do when you or someone around you has them. Fortunately, the answer here is pretty simple: Call 911, and stay put. I can also tell you a few things not to do. Don't pretend that the symptoms will go away. Don't call your doctor's office. And especially, don't drive yourself to the doctor's office or the hospital. As I said before, time is of the essence if you may be having a heart attack, and you could even put other people in danger.This is definitely a scary topic to talk about, but there are no medical emergencies that are more important for adults to be prepared to deal with. I see too many people in my practice who are disabled because of heart problems that could have been treated more quickly and effectively. The article in the CDC weekly journal made me realize that I need to do a better job of talking to my patients, my family and my friends about the warning signs of heart attack. Your physician or any cardiologist can provide you with more tools to understand how you can protect your heart and your life.