Are you worried that someone you love might have a heart attack? Would you know what to do if they did? Do you know there are realistic, effective steps you can take to lower your own risk? At Westchester Health, we have several patients who are concerned about having a heart attack, as well as patients who have had one and are anxious that they might have a second. To impart important information about this potentially life-threatening but treatable condition, we offer this blog and also several helpful resources.
Facts from the CDC about heart disease
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, and for most ethnicities in the U.S., including African Americans, Hispanics and Caucasians
- Every year, approx. 735,000 Americans have a heart attack
- Anyone, including children, can develop heart disease
What causes a heart attack?
Over time, cholesterol and plaque (fatty material) can build up on the inside walls of your arteries, the blood vessels that transport blood to the heart. Most heart attacks occur when a piece of this plaque breaks off. A blood clot forms around the broken-off plaque and blocks the artery, preventing oxygen-carrying blood from reaching the heart.
When blood cannot get to the heart, the heart muscle does not get the oxygen it needs. Without oxygen, the cells of the heart can be damaged or die. The key to surviving a heart attack is to get the blood flow restored to the heart quickly. That’s why it is absolutely critical to get medical help right away if you think you are someone around you is having a heart attack.
Symptoms of a heart attack
A person having a heart attack may experience several symptoms, including:
- Pain, pressure, or squeezing in your chest, particularly a little to the left side
- Pain or pressure in your upper body, especially your neck, jaw, back, stomach, shoulders or in one or both of your arms (especially your left)
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness light-headedness/fainting
- Feeling sick to your stomach (nauseous)
- Cold sweat
We’ve written a blog about this, which you can access here.
Men and women can have different symptoms
Men are more likely to break out in a cold sweat and feel pain moving down their left arm.
Women are more likely to have back or neck pain, heartburn, shortness of breath, an upset stomach, queasiness and nausea. Women may also feel very tired, light-headed or dizzy. A few weeks before a heart attack, women sometimes have flu-like symptoms and sleep problems. We’ve written a blog about this, which you can access here.
Do any of these risk factors apply to you?
Several factors increase your chances of a heart attack, particularly in combination, states the Mayo Clinic. These risk factors include:
- Age. Men 45 or older and women 55 or older are more likely to have a heart attack than younger individuals.
- Tobacco. This includes smoking and long-term exposure to secondhand smoke.
- High blood pressure. Over time, high blood pressure can damage arteries that transport blood to your heart. High blood pressure that occurs with other conditions, such as obesity, high cholesterol or diabetes, increases your risk even more. We’ve written a blog about this, which you can access here.
- High blood cholesterol or triglyceride levels. A high level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) can narrow your arteries and increase your risk of heart attack, as can a high level of triglycerides. However, a high level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (“good” cholesterol) lowers your risk of heart attack.
- Obesity. Obesity is associated with high blood cholesterol levels, high triglyceride levels, high blood pressure and diabetes. NOTE: Losing just 10% of your body weight can lower your risk substantially.
- Diabetes. Not producing enough insulin or not responding properly to your body’s insulin causes your body’s blood sugar levels to rise, increasing your risk of heart attack.
- Metabolic syndrome. This occurs when you have obesity, high blood pressure and high blood sugar. Having metabolic syndrome makes you twice as likely to develop heart disease.
- Family history of heart attack. If your siblings, parents or grandparents have had early heart attacks (by age 55 for male relatives and by age 65 for female relatives), you might be at increased risk.
- Lack of physical activity. Being inactive contributes to high blood cholesterol levels and obesity. People who exercise regularly have better cardiovascular fitness, lower blood pressure and lower risk of heart attack.
- Stress. A high stress level can increase your risk of a heart attack.
- Illicit drug use. Using stimulant drugs, such as cocaine or amphetamines, can trigger a spasm of your coronary arteries that can cause a heart attack.
- A history of preeclampsia. This condition causes high blood pressure during pregnancy and increases a woman’s lifetime risk of heart disease.
- An autoimmune condition. Having a condition such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus can increase your risk of heart attack.
Things you can do now to hopefully prevent a heart attack
Research shows that up to 90% of heart disease can be prevented by changing your diet, exercising more, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking. While some heart disease risk factors, such as family history, are out of your control, a healthy diet and lifestyle can really make a difference.
- If you smoke, stop.
- Get exercise and eat healthy.
- For some people, take a daily aspirin.
- Find positive ways to manage your stress.
- Control your blood pressure.
- Monitor your cholesterol.
- If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
- See your doctor regularly.
What to do if you or someone around you is having a heart attack
If you or someone you are with has symptoms that you think might be a heart attack, call 911 right away. If it is a heart attack, you’re more likely to survive if you get treated within 90 minutes. If possible, as soon as possible, get the person to chew and swallow an aspirin to lower the risk of a blood clot. If they are unconscious, perform CPR — it can double their chance of survival.
Read our blogs on the subject
We’ve written several informative blogs focusing on conditions of the cardiovascular system, which you can read here.
Helpful websites we recommend
- American Heart Association
- CDC Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Do you have some of the risk factors of a heart attack? Please come see us.
If you are concerned about your risk of a heart attack, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health cardiologists. We’ll examine you, evaluate your symptoms, perform some tests, and together with you, decide on the best course of preventative treatment going forward, given your individual health needs. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.
By James W. Catanese, MD, FACC, a cardiologist with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners