When most people hear the words “heart attack,” a dramatic image of someone (usually a man clutching his chest) typically comes to mind. This dramatic perception is what the American Heart Association calls the “movie heart attack.” And while it is true that many heart attacks are sudden and powerful, most begin with more subtle symptoms.
Coronary heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States, according to the American Heart Association. In fact, more women die of the disease annually than men! Knowing your own risks, as well as the common signs of a heart attack—some of which might surprise you—are vitally important to your long term health and wellness.
The most common symptom that can indicate a heart attack is some type of chest pain, pressure or discomfort. Chest discomfort with profuse sweating and a sense of dread in a 72 year old with high blood pressure and is a former smoker almost certainly indicates a heart attack. However, there are lesser known indicators that can also signal a heart attack. Many of these symptoms are rather common and nonspecific. Look for patterns.
Upper Body Discomfort: Pain or tingling in other areas of the upper body besides the chest, including the neck, shoulder, arm, upper back, or jaw.
Shortness of Breath: This symptom may occur by itself or accompany chest pain/upper body discomfort.
Miscellaneous Symptoms: Nausea/vomiting, breaking out in a cold sweat or lightheadedness/ dizziness.
Women are more likely to experience lesser known symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.
Once heart attack symptoms occur, time is of the essence. Call 9-1-1 or the emergency response number for your community. Do not drive yourself to the hospital or wait for someone to give you a ride—the sooner you can be evaluated by emergency services personnel and brought to a hospital emergency room, the better your chances of survival. During a heart attack, blood flow to the heart muscle is reduced or obstructed. When heart muscle is deprived of oxygen-rich blood, it dies. Acting quickly when you first notice the symptoms can save your life and diminish heart damage. Treatment ideally should begin within 60 minutes of the onset of symptoms (called “the golden hour” by medical personnel).
According to the American Heart Association, more than 83 percent of people who die from coronary heart disease are over the age of 65. In this age range, women who have heart attacks are more likely than men to die within a few weeks. Still, men have a greater risk overall of heart attack then women do.
The American Heart Association outlines some major risk factors that can be changed, treated or controlled by altering your lifestyle:
Tobacco: The risk of developing coronary heart disease is two to four times greater for smokers. Cigarette smoking narrows the blood vessels to the heart, thus restricting the flow of oxygen. Every cigarette you smoke adds to the damage.
High blood pressure: The heart is forced to work harder when you have high blood pressure, and increases your risk for stroke and kidney failure. Also, the pressure itself inside the vessels leads to plaque formation – just as with cigarettes.
High blood cholesterol: The higher your blood cholesterol level, the greater your risk of coronary heart disease. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that plays many important roles in our bodies such as maintaining cell walls. But when there is too much cholesterol, it builds up on the linings of our arteries, which slows or blocks the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart.
Being overweight: Quite simply, when people maintain a healthy weight, their bodies function better—your blood circulates efficiently, fluid levels are maintained and you are less likely to develop heart disease and diabetes. People who are overweight have higher levels of fat in their body cells, which need oxygen to survive, requiring blood vessels to circulate more blood to the fat tissue. This taxes the heart, forcing it to work harder and contributing to high blood pressure. The presence of more fat also contributes to high cholesterol.
Having diabetes: If your blood sugar is not controlled properly, the risk is even greater. Diabetes hastens the hardening of the arteries, which can restrict or block the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart.
Heredity: Some risks cannot be altered. Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to develop it themselves. Know your family history.
Research studies have solidly documented that regular aerobic exercise, including brisk walking, not only maintains and improves fitness levels but also aids in controlling many of the risk factors discussed, including high blood cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure.
Being informed about potential symptoms and your risks for a heart attack, along with the changes you can personally make to reduce risk and improve overall heart health, are important ways that together we can proactively address this serious disease.