Deborah Robertson, MD, emergency medicine
St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center
Hopefully you will live a life free of heart disease. For the other 81.1 million of us who have or will develop cardiovascular disease at some point in our life, will you know when you are having a heart attack? Do you know what to do if you are having a heart attack? Do you know what your risks are for having a heart attack?
Unless you've experienced heart problems, we take our hearts for granted. This highly efficient organ pumps our blood through our brain, lungs, and muscles without needing a reminder. It works while we sleep, it steps up for extra duty when we head onto the ski trail or climb the stairs. It doesn't complain when we indulge our poor lifestyle habits or ignore our high blood pressure and cholesterol....until it's too late.
During this season of Valentine's wishes, let's take a moment to appreciate our hearts. Let's make this the month that we go to our health care providers to discuss our risks for heart disease and find out what we can do to minimize them. Gather some personal data like your age, height, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar and check out the American Heart Association's Heart Attack Risk Calculator or the Go Red Heart Checkup. They are online tools that can help you evaluate the likelihood of experiencing a heart attack in the next 10 years.
The blood vessels that encircle the heart and supply the heart with blood and oxygen, the fuels needed to keep our hearts pumping, are the coronary arteries. These vessels are prone to getting clogged, especially in people with high blood pressure, diabetes, and elevated cholesterol. Also, people who smoke or have a family history of heart disease are more likely to develop atherosclerosis—arteries narrowed by plaques. Regular aerobic exercise won't guarantee plaque-free blood vessels, but it will encourage arterial health. Also, a lifetime commitment to daily exercise can substantially control the modifiable risks of cardiovascular disease: hypertension, diabetes, elevated cholesterol and obesity.
Despite our best efforts to maximize our heart's health, the day may come when our heart needs help. A heart attack occurs when a plaque ruptures and obstructs the blood flow through the artery. If the plaque is not dissolved with medication or reopened during a balloon angioplasty or percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), the part of the heart fed by that vessel begins to die. Getting rapid medical attention is essential to preserve as much heart function as possible.
St. Luke's is promoting a healthy heart program, "5 to Stay Alive," to encourage those of us experiencing symptoms of a heart attack to seek medical attention immediately. The hard part is not getting to the hospital (and it is recommended that you call 9-1-1 so that our experienced EMS providers can initiate care before you even get to the hospital). The hard part is knowing WHEN to go to the hospital or what symptoms should prompt your concern that you might be having a heart attack. Some people experience the classic symptoms of chest pressure, or the sensation that something heavy is pushing on their chest, with sweating, nausea, shortness of breath and pain in their left arms. For others, symptoms of a heart attack can be as subtle as jaw or neck discomfort, unusual shortness of breath, significant fatigue, lightheadedness, fainting, back pain or upper abdominal pain. And women, who are just as likely to develop heart disease as men, are more likely to have atypical symptoms.
There's no crystal ball to foresee if and when you may experience a heart attack. Knowing your risk factors, and lessening the ones that are modifiable, will increase your heart's health. But, educate yourself about heart attack symptoms and seek medical care immediately should you experience them.