Heart Attacks

Picture this scenario; you are watching T.V. with your elderly father who is laughing at a sitcom when all of a sudden he clutches his chest in pain. He seems panicked and says he has pain radiating from his chest down to his arm. He has trouble catching his breath and he has broken out into a fine sweat. You have never seen him like this before; you feel helpless and do not understand what is wrong. What are you going to do?

What is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack, also known as myocardial infarction, is caused by the formation of a clot due to the accumulation of plaque in one of the coronary arteries. The clot, or thrombus, stops the flow of oxygen to the rest of the heart muscle. The heart tissue deprived of oxygen begins to die. According to the Mayo Clinic, half of the people experiencing a heart attack die in the first hour because they are not familiar with heart attack signs and symptoms.

Coronary heart disease is one of the major causes of heart attacks. It is occurs when cholesterol begins to accumulate in the arteries. This is known as atherosclerosis. Having a heart attack, or displaying any of the associated symptoms, is a very serious situation that demands immediate medical attention.

How Common are Heart Attacks?
A heart attack is not an uncommon incident. Approximately 1 million people visit a hospital every year in the U.S. in the throes of a heart attack. For every five deaths in the U.S., one is caused by a heart attack.

Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack
There are several different signs and symptoms of a heart attack. The symptoms will be different given a person's age, sex and health history.

Men Women
Symptoms Pain in the middle of the chest
Pain radiating from chest to arms, neck, jaw, back, abdomen
Same symptoms though perhaps less evident for women
Having trouble breathing Having trouble breathing
Sweating Sweating
Feeling faint Feeling faint
Nauseous Nauseous, indigestion
Unbearable pressure and feeling of doom Fatigue, anxiety
Average Age About 66 About 70
Every Year
223,000 267,000

Risk Factors
There are a number of factors that can greatly increase your risk of heart attack. In many cases, simple lifestyle changes can reduce your risk.

  • Smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Sedentary lifestyle and obesity
  • Having diabetes
  • Being overstressed
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Inherited predisposition for heart attack
  • Elevated levels of homocysteine, C-reactive protein and fibrinogen in blood

Early Warning Signs of a Heart Attack
Certain early warning signs may be felt days or weeks in advance of a heart attack. An important early sign is persistent angina, when there is insufficient blood flow to the heart. This can be brought on by heavy labor or lifting.

In general, men are more at risk of suffering a heart attack than women, but a woman's risk increases after menopause, at around age 55. You have more risk of developing heart disease if your father had heart disease before the age of 55 or if your mother had heart problems before age 65.

Treatment and Prognosis
You may be wondering what will happen after you have a heart attack. Normally, you will be medically evaluated and a program will be developed for your specific needs. Some hospitals provide heart attack patients with a cardiac rehabilitation program. These programs focus on keeping track of your physical health through different types of testing, show you how to maintain a fitness regimen, provide diet and nutrition education as well as psychological support. Programs can last from three to six months.

Medicare or insurance plans usually cover cardiac programs but it is a good idea to double check this with your local hospital and state laws.

Prevention is Key: What You Can do to Lower your Risk of Heart Attack
To prevent a heart attack or reduce the likelihood of a second one, doctors will advise you on heart medications and lifestyle considerations. Medications help to make the heart perform more efficiently, and can include:

  • Blood thinning medications or anticoagulants, like aspirin or Plavix, that prevent blood clots.
  • Beta blockers that decrease heart rate and blood pressure
  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, which increase blood flow from your heart
  • Cholesterol lowering medications

You will also be given lifestyle advice such as:

  • Quit smoking
  • Have your cholesterol checked regularly
  • Have standard medical check-ups
  • Check blood pressure regularly
  • Get regular exercise
  • Eat a nutritious diet
  • Take time to relax and reduce stress
  • Do not drink too much alcohol

Stress Test
In the weeks following your heart attack, you may be asked to undergo a stress test. During a stress test, you will exercise on a bike or treadmill so that doctors can measure how well your heart and arteries function under stress. This test can be done periodically for all heart patients to monitor their current heart health.

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