As the winter holiday season comes into full swing, we stop to consider the importance of quick, life-saving action necessary when someone is experiencing a heart attack. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), each year, approximately 800,000 Americans suffer from a heart attack, with heart disease ranking as the leading cause of death. Furthermore, research shows an increase in cardiac events during the winter holiday season. When someone is experiencing a heart attack, every second counts; prompt and informed action by a bystander can often mean the difference between life and death.
Steward sat down with Dr. Benrey, MD, to discuss the symptoms of a heart attack as well as to understand the risk factors, dispel myths, and share tips to promote heart-healthy lifestyles, which are crucial steps in saving lives. Dr. Benrey is a cardiologist at St. Joseph Medical Center in Houston, Texas.
What are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack?
Recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack is the first step in saving a life. Common signs include:
- chest pain
- upper body discomfort (pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach)
- shortness of breath
- nausea or vomiting
- lightheadedness, cold sweat, or pale skin
The person may also collapse in instances where the blood pressure becomes low.
What Immediate Action is Necessary if Someone is Experiencing a Heart Attack?
If you suspect someone is having a heart attack, dial 911 immediately. While waiting for the emergency services to arrive, encourage the person to sit down, loosen tight clothing, and chew two aspirins if available.
If the person becomes unresponsive and is not breathing, performing CPR can also be a life-saving measure.
What is the “Golden Hour” in the Context of a Heart Attack?
When someone is experiencing a heart attack, time is of the essence. There is a short open window to administer fast, appropriate action that can improve the person’s outcome. “Golden Hour” refers to the first 60 minutes following a heart attack during which a medical team can take the action necessary to open the blocked artery and restore normal blood circulation.
A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to the heart is reduced or blocked. Oxygen is in the blood, and when the muscles in the heart are deprived of oxygen, they become damaged. If the person can receive appropriate treatment within the first 60 minutes, doctors can save the heart muscles and limit permanent damage done to the heart.
What are the Causes of a Heart Attack?
The most common cause is Coronary Artery Disease (CAD), which is the narrowing or blocking of coronary arteries due to a buildup of cholesterol and fatty deposits. Over time, this buildup restricts or even completely blocks the flow of blood to the heart, which leads to a heart attack.
What are the Risk Factors for a Heart Attack?
Understanding the risk factors associated with heart attacks can help individuals and their families take proactive action today to enact heart-healthy changes and seek medical intervention. Factors that contribute to an increased risk include:
- family history
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- smoking, excessive alcohol use, and illicit drugs
What are Some Myths and Misconceptions associated with Heath Attacks?
Dispelling misinformation surrounding heart attacks is crucial. Some common myths and misconceptions include:
One common myth is the belief in the cardiovascular benefits of red wine. While moderate alcohol consumption may have some cardiovascular benefits, it is not a substitute for a healthy lifestyle, and excessive alcohol intake can be detrimental. Relying on red wine as a protective measure against heart attacks is not advisable.
Another misconception is that someone who is active and lean is not at risk of suffering a heart attack. While staying active is an important heart-healthy activity, factors like diet, smoking, and cholesterol levels also play an important role. Someone may appear thin yet still have high levels of cholesterol.
Also, a popular misconception is that heart attack is a disease that affects only senior adults. While risk factors do increase with age, factors such as hereditary conditions, an unhealthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle, drug use, extreme sports, and unmanaged cholesterol levels, may lead to a heart attack in a younger person.
What are Some Tips to Help Prevent a Heart Attack?
As the adage goes, “prevention is better than cure,” and this couldn’t be more accurate for coronary artery disease. Reducing the likelihood of a heart attack involves adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle. Some critical changes include:
- manage cholesterol levels;
- adopt a low-fat, vegetables, and fruits diet;
- develop an active lifestyle, especially aerobic exercise for 30 minutes daily; and
- quit smoking, reduce alcohol consumption, and discontinue drug use.
For those with a history of high cholesterol, obesity, and high blood pressure, a screening such as a stress test or calcium scoring is advisable.
How is a Heart Attack Treated at the Hospital?
Timely access to treatment significantly improves outcomes. When a patient is being rushed to the ER, the first diagnostic tool is an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) to determine how the heart is working by measuring the electrical activity of the heart. The Cath lab is immediately placed on alert to perform cardiac catheterization and angioplasty (used to widen the artery). The goal is to return blood flow as quickly as possible to reduce the probability of permanent damage to the muscles due to a lack of oxygen.
What can Communities and families do to Make a life-saving difference?
As communities and families, we can help create environments that support healthier lifestyles. When we empower each other to understand and take ownership of their health, we promote their well-being. Let’s do our part to create a culture of wellness at home by cooking nutritious meals, engaging in physical activities, and supporting each other in adopting healthy habits.
While heart attacks devastate many families each year, we can take action to help reduce the incidence of this life-threatening disease through education, awareness, positive support, and swift action when needed. When we learn the symptoms of life-threatening events such as a heart attack, we can identify and engage the necessary rapid response needed when every second counts. Together, we can save lives, improve the well-being of others, and build healthier communities.
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