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Heart Attack:  Recognition and Prevention

February is American Heart Month.  Join me in celebrating by brushing up on the signs of heart attack in both men and women.  We’ll also talk a little bit about prevention.    Hopefully by the end of this article you’ll be prepared to recognize these symptoms in yourself or your loved one….just in case!



First some unfortunate statistics.  Heart disease is the #1 cause of death in both men and women in the U.S.  In fact, 1 in 4 deaths are due to heart disease.  As of 2017, the CDC reported that 610,000 people die of heart disease in the U.S. each year.  A heart attack affects someone every 43 seconds!


Heart Attack vs. Heart Disease

Heart attack and heart disease are not exactly the same thing…let’s discuss.  Heart disease includes any condition in which the coronary arteries (the vessels that supply blood to your heart) are narrowed or blocked.  Heart disease also includes other conditions that affect the rhythm of the heart, the valves, or the heart muscle itself.  Here’s a list of the most common types of heart disease.  Some of them might surprise you.

Heart attacks occur when blood flow to the heart is cut off (specifically in someone who has coronary artery disease).  The heart is a muscle so it needs blood (and oxygen from the blood) to function.  When the blood-flow is blocked, parts of the heart muscle die!  Sad face!


Heart attack = myocardial infarction = MI

Heart attack is often referred to as myocardial infarction or MI.  Myocardial means heart muscle and infarction means death of tissue due to decreased blood supply.


Typical signs of heart attack


Chest discomfort

This may feel like tightness, squeezing, fullness, pain, or pressure.  Sometimes people describe the feeling of an elephant sitting on their chest.  The discomfort may lest several minutes or come and go.


Pain in other areas of the body

Commonly affected areas of pain include the right or left arm/shoulder (not just the left arm like you might have heard before), the jaw, the stomach, the neck, or the upper or lower back.


Difficulty breathing

You may experience shortness of breath with or without chest pain.  For example, you may feel like you’ve just run a marathon when all you’ve done is made the bed.


Other Signs

These may include nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, fainting, clamminess, sweating


Chest discomfort is the most common sign of heart attack in both men and women.  However, women are a little more likely to experience some of the less obvious symptoms like shortness of breath and nausea/vomiting.


If you think you are having a heart attack then you should call 911 immediately.  Just like when having a stroke, you really should go to the hospital via ambulance rather than in a personal car.  DEFINITELY DON’T DRIVE YOURSELF!!!!  When you call 911 and go by ambulance, life saving treatment can start much sooner than if you walk into an emergency department on your own two feet!  Plus, if you go into cardiac arrest then the ambulance staff can provide CPR.


If you experience vague symptoms that you attribute to less serious conditions like acid reflux or the flu then you likely won’t feel compelled to call 911.  However, keep track of your symptoms and talk to your doctor about them as soon as you can.  They may run some tests to determine if you’ve had a heart attack without even knowing it.  If nothing else, they can help you determine your risk factors so that you can prevent future heart disease.  Speaking of prevention….



Now that you know what a heart attack is and how to recognize it, let’s discuss how to prevent it in the first place.

Quit Smoking

Your risk of heart disease decreases by 50% within 1 year if you simply quit smoking!


Just 30 minutes a day of walking will lower heart attack and stroke risk.

Eat healthy

I’m not going to give details on this one because there are too many theories out there regarding which way of eating is best.  I’d suggest talking to your doctor or nutritionist about what diet is healthiest for you.

Keep track of your health benchmarks

You really should see your doctor for yearly physicals.  They can help you keep track of cardiac risk factors like your cholesterol.  You can also monitor your blood pressure, heart rate, and weight at home with inexpensive equipment.

Keep your stress in check

Try yoga, meditation, deep breathing, journaling etc. to decrease stress.  High stress increases blood pressure, affects your hormones, and may even affect the way that your blood clots.


The majority of the cardiovascular diseases that we’ve discussed in this article are preventable through diet, exercise, and lifestyle.  Let’s spend this month focusing on how to decrease our risk for heart disease and heart attack.  It is heart month after all!

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