According to the American Heart Association, over 1 million people have heart attacks every year. Half of them die from the attack; others are left permanently disabled. Taking steps to prevent heart disease, recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack and knowing how to respond can save a life.
A heart attack (or myocardial infarction) occurs when the heart muscle doesn't receive adequate oxygen. Your heart muscle needs a regular supply of oxygenated blood to function properly. If your coronary arteries--which supply blood to the heart--become narrow or completely blocked due to a buildup of plaque, your heart may not receive all of the blood it needs. When the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen, some of its cells die and a heart attack occurs. In some cases the dead cells are replaced by scar tissue, which can create more long-term problems. The amount of damage to the heart depends on the amount of cells affected, as well as the time between the heart attack and when treatment is received.
Heart attack symptoms can vary from person to person, and can be different for men than women. Common heart attack symptoms are pain, pressure or heaviness in the chest, arm, neck, jaw or back pain, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, lightheadedness or dizziness. In general, men tend to have more classic symptoms such as chest pain and discomfort. Women tend to have a higher occurrence of back and jaw pain, nausea and shortness of breath. Some people experience feelings of anxiety or nervousness as the only symptom. Symptoms can often be mistaken for indigestion or heartburn. In some cases, especially in the elderly, there can be no symptoms or warnings.
Symptoms can be intense and severe, or they can be mild--with the person not even knowing what is happening. How long the symptoms last can vary from person to person. In general, heart attack symptoms last at least 15 to 20 minutes and can go on for several hours. The only way to be certain if you are having a heart attack is to be properly tested. Your physician can measure the electrical activity of the heart to see if there is unusual activity. Blood tests can look for the presence of certain proteins. In addition, there are other tests to look at the structure of the heart and detect any damage.
There are simple lifestyle choices that can help you avoid having a heart attack. Eating a healthy diet low in fat and cholesterol will help you to avoid plaque buildup. Regular exercise can keep your heart muscle strong and also keep the arteries clear. If you smoke, get support to quit. If you have diabetes, take steps to manage it correctly. Maintain a healthy weight. The more you weigh, the more stress there is placed on the heart muscle to pump blood throughout the body. Have regular checkups and keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check. Managing stress is also an important component to preventing heart disease. These steps are especially important if you have a family history of heart trouble, which puts you at a higher risk.
If you suspect someone is having a heart attack, quick action can save a life. Even if you are not sure, don't wait. One of the main reasons people die from heart attacks is, they don't get proper help fast enough. After a heart attack, almost half die within the first hour after experiencing symptoms and never make it to the hospital. Getting help within the first hour is a primary step for saving a life. The first thing to do is call 911 immediately. Do not try to drive the person to the hospital. Ambulances are staffed with trained medical personnel and stocked with equipment to save a life. This means the person can be treated while en route to the hospital, which is not he case if you drive her yourself. Everyone should be trained in CPR, especially if you or someone you know is at risk for heart disease. After calling for help, administering CPR can be the difference between life and death.