Recognizing Heart Attack Warning Signs and Risk Factors
What is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack occurs, in most cases, when a vessel supplying the heart
muscle with blood and oxygen becomes completely blocked. The vessel has
become narrowed by a slow buildup of fatty deposits, made mostly of
cholesterol. When a clot occurs in this narrowed vessel, it completely
blocks the supply of blood to the heart muscle. That part of the muscle
will begin to die if the individual does not immediately seek medical
Heart attacks have beginnings. These "beginnings" occur in over 50 percent of patients. More importantly, if recognized in time, these "beginnings" can be treated before the heart is damaged. 85 percent of heart damage occurs within the first two hours of a heart attack. There are warning signs and risk factors associated with heart attacks in men and women.
Know What to Look for with Heart Attack
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. Each year, approximately 1.2 million Americans suffer a heart attack, and nearly one-third of these individuals die, many before they reach the hospital.
People often dismiss heart attack warning signs, such as chest pain, and think they have heartburn or a pulled muscle. Many people wait too long before getting help. Recognize the symptoms of a heart attack.
Frequent Signs of a Heart Attack
- Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest. The discomfort lasts for more than a few minutes or it may go away and come back. The discomfort may feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
- Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. This may include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach
- Shortness of breath may occur with or before chest discomfort
- Other symptoms may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness
- Extreme fatigue
These symptoms may come and go until finally becoming constant and severe. Treatments are most effective when they occur in the early stages of chest pain.
Early Heart Attack Symptoms
Not every heart attack displays the same symptoms. In fact, many people ignore the early signs of a heart attack. Unfortunately, when these early signs are ignored, we miss a "window of opportunity" to prevent the attack before any heart damage can occur. The following signs and symptoms are ones to be aware of in yourself or in your family members:
- Shortness of breath without exertion
- Heartburn or burning in the chest
- Discomfort or pain
- Anxiety or a feeling of impending doom
Understand Your Risk for Heart Attack
The following risk factors have been linked to a higher incidence of heart attack and should be addressed and eliminated. If you, or someone you care about, struggles with any of these risks, talk to your doctor about ways to remove these behaviors before they have a chance to impact your health.
- Increasing age: About 82 percent of people who die of heart disease are 65 or older.
- Gender: Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women and typically have attacks earlier in life.
- Heredity: Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to develop it themselves.
- Smoking: Smokers' risk of developing heart disease is two to four times that of nonsmokers.
- High blood cholesterol: As blood cholesterol rises, so does the risk of heart disease.
- High blood pressure: High blood pressure increases the heart's workload.
- Physical inactivity: An inactive lifestyle is a risk factor for heart disease.
- Obesity and overweight: People who have excess body fat - especially around the waist - are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke.
- Diabetes: Diabetes increases your risk of heart disease.
- Stress: Some scientists have noted a relationship between heart disease risk and stress.
Source: American Heart Association
Tools for Identifying Heart Disease Earlier
St. Luke's offers two opportunities to learn more about your heart health, Heart Check and the $99 Heart Scan.
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