According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. But shockingly, the World Health Organization says that 80 percent of heart disease is preventable. That’s right, 80 percent. The most common risk factors for heart disease are smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, inactivity, obesity and diabetes. You can prevent heart disease by doing things like exercising, eating right and quitting smoking, but that’s for another article.
First, let’s talk a little science so you know why heart attacks happen. A heart attack happens when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart is severely reduced or stopped. This occurs because over time, the arteries that supply the heart with blood can slowly become thicker and harder from a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances. This process is known as atherosclerosis. If the plaque breaks open and a blood clot forms, it can block the blood flow in the vessel, causing a heart attack. Heart attacks are perhaps the most feared complication of heart disease, so it’s important to learn how to spot the signs. We’ve all seen the classic signs of a heart attack in movies. It can be dramatic and sudden, and can include:
- Chest pain in the center of your chest that can feel like squeezing, pressure or fullness and can radiate down the left arm or to other areas. The pain can come and go and lasts longer than a few minutes. It has often been described as “having an elephant sit on your chest” or “having your chest in a vise.”
- Shortness of breath
- Palpitations or heart racing
The American Heart Association and a body of recent research suggest that this typical picture of a heart attack is more typical for men who experience symptoms. A report by BlueCross BlueShield revealed that while heart attacks are more common in men, women “who experience heart attacks have worse outcomes — they are more likely than men to die within one year of a heart attack, to have another heart attack within six years, and to be disabled because of heart failure within six years.” Women receive less aggressive treatment after a heart attack than men and often delay care longer than men. This is why it is especially important that women learn to identify signs of a heart attack. For women, the picture can be more insidious than the dramatic Hollywood heart attack. While chest pain is still a common symptom for women, many have atypical symptoms that can seem more like the flu than a heart attack. Some don’t even have chest pain. For women, signs of a heart attack can include more than the typical symptoms above, such as:
- Unusual fatigue
- Trouble sleeping
- Pain in neck, jaw or back
- Stomach pain
There’s a story circulating in national news about a local woman who believed she was suffering symptoms of a viral illness. She wanted to sleep it off, but at the insistence of her husband, she went to the emergency room and discovered she was in the throes of a heart attack. These stories are common, so it’s important to listen to your body. If you don’t feel right, go in to the hospital and get checked out. If you do believe that you are suffering the symptoms of a heart attack call 911 immediately and, according to a suggestion by Harvard Medical School, chew a tablet of aspirin.
By 2020, the American Heart Association wants to improve the cardiovascular health of Americans by 20 percent and reduce death from cardiovascular disease by 20 percent. The key to this goal is education. Let’s all work together to spread awareness of the preventable nature of heart disease and the subtle signs of a heart attack.