Chances are someone you know or love has experienced a heart attack. What's worse, you may fall victim to one yourself at some point in life. According to the American Heart Association, in 2001, 13.2 million Americans suffered from heart disease.
Heart disease has been the number-one killer of Americans every year since 1918. It accounted for almost 479,000 deaths in 2003, or 1 in every 5 deaths in the United States. On average, there are 1.2 million heart attacks annually and roughly forty percent of the individuals affected do not survive.
The consequences of heart disease are far-reaching and personal and while some may feel that keeping their head in the sand will make the problem go away, the truth is that prevention is the best protection.
What Triggers a Heart Attack?
The heart functions in much the same way that a pump does, but instead of depending upon gas for its operation, the heart depends upon a constant supply of blood, which is delivered via arteries located within the wall of the heart muscle. As long as the arteries remain open and able to supply the heart muscle with oxygenated, nutrient-enriched blood, the heart performs very efficiently. If, however, one of these arteries becomes blocked by a clot, the heart muscle downstream becomes deprived of life-sustaining blood and it may die within a matter of minutes. This is what is known as a heart attack.
In some cases, the body is able to form natural bypasses around the blockage so that the heart muscle continues to receive a supply of blood. In other cases, physicians are able to administer medications in the emergency room to dissolve the clot or they are able to open the obstructed vessel with a device known as a stent.
Sometimes heart attacks can be "silent" and the victim is not even aware of the incident. More commonly however, there are symptoms present that may include chest pain or heaviness (which may or may not radiate to the arm or jaw), nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sweating, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and weakness. If you suspect that you or a loved one is having a heart attack, you should call 911 immediately.
What Are My Risk Factors for a Heart Attack?
While everyone is potentially at risk for having a heart attack, there are some groups which are more prone than others to fall victim. Individuals at higher risk for heart attack include males, the elderly, diabetics, smokers, individuals who are overweight or inactive and people who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels or a family history of heart disease. A family history of heart disease is defined as having a mother or sister with heart disease prior to the age of 65 or a father or brother with heart disease prior to the age of 55.
While genetics and one's family history cannot be controlled, many of the other risk factors listed above are subject to modification. Your physician can discuss ways to lower your risk of heart attack.
How Can I Prevent a Heart Attack?
Since prevention is always the best medicine, it would be wise to know what you can do to avoid having a heart attack. Most healthy individuals are encouraged to engage in some form of physical activity, such as walking for thirty minutes three times a week.
If you are a smoker, now is the time to stop. Studies have shown that the longer a person remains smoke free, the lower the risk of heart attack. In other words, it's never too late to stop smoking.
What you eat can also affect your risk. Studies have shown that eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats can lower the risk of getting many of the conditions which contribute to heart disease, such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity.
Also, you should always take all of your medication as prescribed, particularly if you already have an illness such as high cholesterol that puts you at risk for a heart disease. Your physician may also routinely perform blood tests and EKGs during office visits. An EKG is a painless test using adhesive pads placed on the chest wall to measure the heart's electrical activity.
If all these measures fail, and your physician feels that you are still at an extremely high risk for a heart attack, he or she may opt to take action in advance. After performing certain tests your physician may suggest a procedure known as a PTCA (percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty). In this procedure, a wire with a hollow tube on the end is inserted through a small incision in the groin and passed upwards into the heart and into the blocked artery. The artery is opened up and the hollow tube is left in the heart artery to prevent it from becoming blocked again. This surgery is reserved for only the more extreme cases.
How Can I Prevent Another Heart Attack?
After a heart attack, your cardiologist may restrict certain activities for a short time, and he or she may suggest that you enroll in what is known as cardiac rehabilitation. This consists of regular exercise sessions under the watchful eye of cardiac-trained nurses and other personnel. Your cardiologist may also suggest that you undergo routine testing to determine the status of your heart.
Understanding your body and your disease is the best weapon you have in combating heart disease. And if you begin to again have symptoms similar to those experienced at the time of your first heart attack, you should seek medical treatment immediately.
For more information about heart disease and prevention you may contact your local chapter of the American Heart Association or go online at www.americanheart.org.