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Heart disease kills more men and women than any other disease in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 610,000 Americans die of heart disease every year – that equates to one out of every four deaths. Heart disease includes a variety of heart conditions with the most common type being coronary artery disease -- a disease caused by plaque build-up that can lead to a heart attack. Approximately 735,000 Americans have a heart attack each year with 525,000 of those having their first heart attack and 210,000 having another heart attack in addition to one they have had in the past.

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction, occurs when oxygen-rich blood flow becomes severely reduced or blocked and a section of the heart can no longer receive oxygen. If blood flow is not restored quickly, the affected section of the heart muscle will begin to die. This happens due to a slow process called atherosclerosis, where fatty material and cholesterol build-up in the vessel wall of the heart, blocking blood flow through the heart muscle.

Atherosclerosis can start as early as age 10 with a fatty streak in a heart vessel. The progression of this fatty streak has to do with several factors including genetics, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, and weight.

What are the Warning Signs of a Heart Attack?

Dr. Mian Jan, MD, FACC, FSCAI, is a
Cardiologist at West Chester Cardiology.

"Heart attacks can begin with vague symptoms that may slowly intensify," says Cardiologist Mian Jan, MD, Chairman of the Department of Medicine at Chester County Hospital in West Chester, PA. "Many people experience mild chest pain or discomfort as the first sign, but a variety of indicators could signal danger." Dr. Jan adds that these signs could include:

  • Chest discomfort including pressure, squeezing or fullness
  • Discomfort or heaviness in one or both arms
  • Back, jaw or neck discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Breaking into a cold sweat
  • Nausea or loss of appetite
  • Lightheadedness

"These warning signs often happen when you are physically active and may resolve themselves with rest. However, these symptoms can occur while you're at rest as well, especially if you have coronary artery disease.

Everyone reacts differently to symptoms -- some are unsure if they're having a heart attack, others may confuse these symptoms for something else, such as acid reflux," says Dr. Jan.

What to Do When Someone is Having a Heart Attack

If you think you or someone you know is having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately. You will save precious minutes, which are life-saving in cardiac situations.

Unfortunately, many people take the “wait and see” approach, which can be deadly. In fact, the CDC states approximately 47 percent of sudden cardiac deaths happen before the person can get to a hospital. This statistic tells us that many people with heart disease do not act early enough when experiencing symptoms.

If you are experiencing heart attack symptoms, it is imperative you call 9-1-1 and do not drive yourself to the hospital. Paramedics can begin your care immediately and can provide treatment if your condition suddenly becomes worse.

Heart Attack Risk Factors

There are several risk factors that increase your chances of having a heart attack. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), some of these factors are uncontrollable including:

  • Age - As you age, your chances of having a heart attack increases. Men who are 45 years old and women who are 55 years old and older have an increased chance of a heart attack.
  • Family History - If you have a family history of heart attacks, you may be at risk as well.

Preventable Risk Factors Include:

  • Smoking - According to the CDC, smoking is a major cause of cardiovascular disease. Smoking raises triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood; lowers your HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind); makes blood more likely to clot, blocking blood flow from the heart; damages cells that line the blood vessels; and can increase the build-up of plaque.
  • High blood pressure can damage arteries by accelerating atherosclerosis.
  • High levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind) and high levels of triglycerides increases your risk, while having a high level of HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind) reduces your risk.
  • Having diabetes, especially if uncontrolled, increases your chances of having a heart attack.
  • Obesity is associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol levels and high triglyceride levels, which all increase your chances of heart disease. Losing just 10% of your body weight can improve your health.

Preventing Heart Disease

"The good news is that you are in control of the modifiable risk factors and one should be even more diligent if you have non-modifiable risk factors like family history of premature coronary artery disease. You can take steps to improve physical health and reduce your chances of heart disease with lifestyle changes," Dr. Jan explains.

The AHA recommends making the following lifestyle changes to reduce your chances of a heart attack:

  • Stop smoking - We know it is hard to kick the habit, but quitting will significantly improve your health. Find support groups or a smoking cessation class to help you quit for good.
  • Eat a healthy diet - Your diet is your best tool to help protect you from cardiovascular disease. The food you eat plays an impact on other controllable factors such as your cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes and weight.
  • Reduce high cholesterol - By reducing your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol while incorporating exercise, you can help get your LDL cholesterol levels down. If improving your diet and physical activity do not help, then medication may be necessary. Ask your doctor what is best for you.
  • Lower high blood pressure - High blood pressure is a major risk factor for stroke. Start reducing your salt intake, take any medications prescribed by your doctor, and start exercising. An optimal blood pressure reading is less than 120/80 mmHg.
  • Increase your physical activity - Start exercising or being physically active every day. Moderate-to-vigorous-intensity exercise, 3-4 days a week for 40 minutes each session can reduce your cholesterol, lower your blood pressure, and help you lose weight.
  • Reach a healthy weight - Obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease. Healthy eating habits, regular exercise and controlling your calorie intake can help you keep a healthy weight. If you are having trouble maintaining a healthy weight, try a weight management program near you.
  • Manage diabetes - If you have diabetes, keeping it controlled will reduce your chances of having a heart attack.
  • Reduce stress - Stress in your life can impact your risk for heart disease and stroke. People react differently to stress and some may over eat, smoke or drink more than they typically would. Find ways to manage your stress in a healthy way to prevent bad habits that can lead to poor health.
  • Limit alcohol intake - Drinking excessively can cause negative health effects including raising blood pressure, chances for stroke and cancer, as well as other diseases. Limit your drinks to no more than two per day for men and no more than one for women. 
  • Talk to your doctor - Schedule regular appointments with your health care provider to learn more about your heart health and the steps you should take to reduce your risk for heart disease.

You can also learn about your risk by taking an online cardiac risk assessment, such as Chester County Hospital's Heart Tracks. It allows you to compare your actual age to your heart's biological age, estimate your risk of developing cardiovascular disease and prioritize your most harmful cardiovascular risk factors. Take The Assessment Now!

Related Heart Attack Information from Chester County Hospital in West Chester, PA

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