What is your risk?
What is the most important muscle in the body? You might say legs, arms, back…yes, these are important, but the one you should be thinking of is your heart! All the other muscles in our body are able to have moments of rest, but not our heart. It never takes a break and must function correctly all of the time. What happens when our heart doesn’t function the way it is supposed to? Most likely, it is a heart attack. We have all heard the term, and you probably know someone who has had one, but how do you know if you are having one and what are you supposed to do when it happens?
A heart attack, or AMI (Acute Myocardial Infarction) or MI (Myocardial Infarction), is when the heart muscle doesn’t get enough oxygen to support its function. The blood flow is then usually severely reduced or cut off completely. The reduction in blood flow to the heart is the result of a narrowing of the arteries due to buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances (called plaque). This process takes years to develop and is known as atherosclerosis. When a piece of the plaque breaks off and blocks the flow of blood, it causes a clot to form. When this blockage prevents oxygen and nutrients from getting to the heart muscle, it is called ischemia. If not corrected quickly, it can cause permanent damage or death to the affected area. Now that we know what is happening inside our body when a heart attack is occurring, what are the symptoms?
We have all seen TV shows and movies showing a man clutching his chest and falling over unconscious. In real life, most heart attacks aren’t that dramatic. Chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom, but others include shortness of breath (dyspnea); feeling like your heart is beating too fast or skipping beats (palpitations); pain in a shoulder, arm or back; nausea/vomiting, sweating and fatigue. Most people are able to recognize that these symptoms are serious, but what if you don’t have these particular symptoms that are common for a man having a heart attack? What about women? They are also at risk for heart attacks, but their symptoms often present in a different way. Women will often have an uncomfortable sensation in their chest (could feel like squeezing, fullness, pressure or pain), pain in the jaw or back without chest pain, shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort, nausea, cold sweats or lightheadedness. Women can even experience a heart attack without having any chest pain! To be safe, if you are having any symptoms that cause you to think that you might be having a heart attack, do not delay in getting medical treatment. It is not wise to drive yourself to the emergency room; instead, call 911, unlock your door (if you’re at home) and lay down (in case you lose consciousness). Emergency personnel will be able to start providing medical treatment while en route to the hospital. Time is of the essence…the quicker intervention can be provided to open the blocked artery, the more likely we will be able to save someone.
It’s great to know the signs of a heart attack and what to do if you are having one, but it is just as important to know what to do to try to prevent it. There are several simple steps that you can follow in order to maintain a healthy heart. At first, these changes can seem daunting, but remember that the lifestyle changes you will have to make after having a heart attack will most likely have a greater impact than the ones you can do to prevent one. Most people do not want to take multiple different medications daily, have to go for routine monthly doctor visits, and potentially have significant complications from a heart attack. In order to have the best chance at having a life where your risk of a heart attack is lowered, you need to manage blood pressure, reduce blood sugar, control cholesterol, lose weight, avoid excessive alcohol consumption and stop/never start smoking. While all of these risk factors are within your control, some are not, such as aging, being of the male gender and heredity issues (e.g., having a parent with heart disease makes you more likely to develop it). What can we do to reduce the modifiable risk factors? Eat healthier and be more physically active. Please note that if you are currently not participating in an exercise/nutrition program, consult a physician prior to starting one. The key is to remember to start off slow and work at your own pace. As long as you are doing something, it is better than nothing, and as you exercise more frequently, you’ll be able to physically do more.
Do your part in taking care of your heart…you’re only given one, and it needs to function well so you can have a healthy life. For more information about heart attacks and heart health, please visit the American Heart Association (AHA) website at https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack?.