Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Heart Attack

Heart Attack: Warning Signs and Tips on Prevention

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack (also called myocardial infarction) is when part of the heart muscle is damaged or dies because it isn't receiving enough oxygen. Normally, oxygen is carried to the heart by blood flowing through the arteries that feed the heart muscle (called coronary arteries).
Most heart attacks are caused by a blockage in these arteries. Usually the blockage is caused by atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of fatty deposits (called plaque) inside the artery, and hardening of the artery walls. The buildup is like the gunk that builds up in a drainpipe and slows the flow of water.

Heart attacks are also often caused by a blood clot that forms in a coronary artery, blocking blood flow. Clots are especially likely to form where plaques become cracked or damaged in any way.
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How do I know if I'm having a heart attack?

The pain of a heart attack can feel like bad heartburn. You may also be having a heart attack if you:
  • Feel a pressure or crushing pain in your chest, sometimes with sweating, dizziness, nausea or vomiting
  • Feel pain that extends from your chest into the jaw, left arm or left shoulder
  • Feel tightness in your chest
  • Have shortness of breath for more than a couple of seconds
  • Feel weak, lightheaded or faint
  • Have sudden overwhelming fatigue
Don't ignore the pain or discomfort. If you think you are having heart problems or a heart attack, get help immediately. The sooner you get treatment, the greater the chance that the doctors can prevent further damage to the heart muscle.
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What should I do if I think I am having a heart attack?

Right away, call for an ambulance to take you to the hospital. Don’t try to drive yourself. While you wait for the ambulance to come, chew one regular tablet of aspirin. Don't take the aspirin if you're allergic to aspirin.

If you can, go to a hospital with advanced care facilities for people with heart attacks. In these medical centers, the latest heart attack technology is available 24 hours a day. How well you survive a heart attack depends on how quickly you get treatment, how much damage there is to the heart, and where that damage is.
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Risk factors for a heart attack

  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Age--Risk increases for men older than 45 years and for women older than 55 years (or after menopause). About 83% of people who die from heart disease are 65 years of age or older.
  • High cholesterol level
  • High blood pressure
  • Family history of heart attack
  • Race--African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans and native Hawaiians are at greater risk.
  • Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • Lack of exercise
  • Stress
  • Obesity
  • Sex (Gender)--More men have heart attacks, although heart disease is the leading cause of death for American women.
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How can I avoid having a heart attack?

Talk to your family doctor about your specific risk factors (see box above) for a heart attack and how to reduce your risk. Your doctor may tell you to do the following:
  • Quit smoking. Your doctor can help you. (If you don't smoke, don't start!)
  • Eat a healthy diet. Cut back on foods high in saturated fat and sodium (salt) to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. A Mediterranean diet is also a very healthy choice. Ask your doctor about how to improve your diet.
  • Control your blood sugar if you have diabetes.
  • Exercise. It may sound hard if you haven't exercised for a while, but try to work up to 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise (that raises your heart rate) 4 to 6 times a week.
  • Lose weight if you're overweight. Your doctor can advise you about the best ways to lose weight.
  • Control your blood pressure if you have hypertension. 
Talk to your doctor about whether aspirin would help reduce your risk of a heart attack. Aspirin can help keep your blood from forming clots that can eventually block the arteries.
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Written by editorial staff.
American Academy of Family Physicians
Reviewed/Updated: 11/10
Created: 09/00






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