Heart attack: Know the warning signs

by Donna Carlson, Staff Writer

You can’t change your age or your family health history, but you can reduce your risk of a sudden heart attack by being smart. Are you in the dark about which symptoms to look for? Once your doctor has made you aware of a possible heart condition, keeping track of warning signs is your best chance of living a long and productive life.

A new blood test for heart failure can help doctors determine whether someone who goes to the hospital with shortness of breath has heart failure or not. The test measures the level of a protein called B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP), which is produced by the heart as it fails.

The test is expected to replace echocardiography, which is more expensive and not available in all emergency rooms.

What is a heart attack?
A heart attack means death of heart muscle mast often caused by a blood vessel disease named atherosclerosis. The disease causes plaque buildup in coronary arteries. Coronary artery plaques can lead to angina pectoris and heart attack (also called myocardial infarction). Sometimes attacks occur without warning, or they may follow months of chest pain, but once an attack has occurred, your ventricular function is impaired, leaving you at risk for “the big one.”

Cardiovascular disease is still the number one killer of both men and women even though the public has become more aware of causes such as sedentary lifestyles, smoking and eating foods too high in fat. Heart attacks kill 600,000 Americans a year, accounting for one out of every five deaths in the United States. Even if you survive a heart attack, rehabilitation is a long process, one that could keep you off the road permanently. What can you do to even the odds? The American Heart Association says the best way to avoid an attack is to become aware of your risk factors.

The classic warning signals of a heart attack

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest
  • Pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck or arms
  • Chest discomfort with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath

Less typical signs include:

  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Unexplained anxiety, weakness or fatigue
  • Palpitations, cold sweat or paleness

Treatments for heart attack include regular checkups, a pacemaker implant, bypass surgery, angioplasty and coronary stent placement or in worse-case scenarios, heart transplant surgery. Of course your doctor will suggest that you stop smoking, cut back on fatty foods and increase your level of exercise.

Heart failure: different than a heart attack?

Heart failure is a gradual weakening of heart muscle. It is a condition in which the heart becomes enlarged and pumps inefficiently and leads to fluid accumulation in the limbs and lungs. Patients may feel fatigue, breathlessness and if the condition is severe enough your only option is a heart transplant.

Not all chest pain is heart-related

There also are causes of chest pain not related to the heart muscle. Angina is one of these. Angina is fairly common in men over 50. In women it usually starts after menopause. It is a central chest discomfort, the result of extensive plaque build up in your arteries. It is sometimes described as a fullness, an ache, a burning or a dull pressure. Other symptoms may include dizziness and pain radiating from the chest to the throat, neck or back. The pain comes and goes, you don’t feel sick, and you can quiet your symptoms with rest. Angina can be confused with a heart attack, but usually pain dissipates in about 15 minutes. If you exhibit these symptoms get your truck off the road and see a doctor. If you have angina, your doctor will check for high blood pressure and your cholesterol level. You may increase your risk if your pressure is 140/90 or higher. If you don’t know what your blood pressure level is, get it checked. Checking pressure on the road is easy. Many drugstores or discount department stores have blood pressure monitors for public use. If your cholesterol is high (over 200), the doctor also will ask you to watch your fatty food intake and may suggest one of the new cholesterol-lowering drugs. He or she may also ask you to stop smoking and increase your level of exercise.

What is stroke?

Not all the warning signs occur in every stroke. If you have one or more symptoms that last more than a few minutes, don’t delay. If you are with someone who is exhibiting stroke symptoms, immediately call 9-1-1. Expect the person to protest – denial is common – don’t take no for an answer.

Common warning signs of stroke:

Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body; sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding; sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination; or sudden, severe headache with no known cause.