It’s February and it’s American Heart Month. I think the heart is the most important organ in the body. I’ve come to that conclusion by using my own grading criteria . . . based on which organ causes us the most harm the quickest if it suddenly quits working. The lungs are a close second, but I feel like there are two of those so simultaneous failure is unlikely. On a more serious note, whether the heart is the most important organ or not, the fact that heart disease is the number one cause of death in America, over 700,000 a year, makes it important enough that it should capture are attention, not only this month, but every month.
In past years I’ve talked about things we can do to make us more heart healthy. While there are some things we can’t change, like age, gender or genetics, there are many things we can do improve our heart health. In most cases, heart disease is preventable when people adopt a healthy lifestyle, which includes not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, controlling blood sugar and cholesterol, treating high blood pressure, getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week and getting regular checkups. There isn’t anything in that list that should surprise us or is something we don’t understand. I can guarantee that there are multiple places on the internet, at the library, or at your doctor’s office that can explain in more detail how to accomplish each one of the healthy lifestyle recommendations. It is a fact that an ounce of prevention is worth avoiding a heart attack and I encourage each of you to take the steps necessary to improve your heart health. There is, however, another aspect of your heart health that will be my focus for this blog.
While taking the steps to keep your heart healthy for the long run will add years to your life, there are important things to know that could have an immediate impact on saving your life. Recognizing the signs of a heart attack and taking immediate action can absolutely save someone’s life.
As I was doing research for this blog, I found out that the major warning signs of a heart attack are often different for women than men. I had no idea there was a difference. That knowledge could be invaluable when we are evaluating signs of a possible heart attack.
According to the CDC, the major warning signs of a heart attack for men include:
- Chest pain, intense pressure and squeezing fullness in the center or left side of the chest that spans a couple minutes and can re-occur
- Upper body pain, particularly your arms and left shoulder
- Irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness and faintness
- Cold sweats
The major warning signs for women include:
- Fatigue lasting multiple days or coming on as suddenly severe
- Upper back, shoulder, throat and jaw pain
- Shortness of breath
- Indigestion pain
- Pressure or pain in the center of your chest, which may spread to your arm
One of the first things to know when we are evaluating possible signs of a heart attack is that time is critical. The basic rule is, if you suspect someone is having a heart attack call 911, get the person to the hospital. Some of the signs can be slow in presenting themselves and will absolutely reveal themselves differently depending on the patient’s basic health and other ailments she or he may have.
We’ve all known friends or relatives who didn’t recognize they were having a heart attack, relegating the symptoms to an upset stomach or muscle aches and pains or a bad night’s sleep. A hint that I read made a lot of sense – if the pain doesn’t change when you change positions, or the ache doesn’t feel differently when you exercise your arm, for instance, it should raise your suspicions. If you’re out of breath or lightheaded but it doesn’t get better when you lay down and rest, then those symptoms could be an indication of a heart attack.
If a person has had a heart attack, they are more apt to have another. Remembering your personal symptoms of your past heart attack and, more importantly, making sure that your loved ones or caregivers know those symptoms can save your life. Having a record of the medicines you are taking, including doses and frequency, can help the doctor who first treats you when you’ve had a heart attack be more efficient in knowing how best to treat you. Again, time is of the essence. When in doubt, go to the hospital.
While quick recognition and getting people to the hospital is key, there may be a situation where more immediate action is required, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Most of us have seen people in films or even observed in person someone performing CPR, and some of you may have even done it yourself. Knowing how to perform CPR can save lives. There are classes available that teach CPR. Many of you may have taken a class at one time, and some employers offered courses at work. That knowledge can save lives.
The American Heart Association is the leader in resuscitation science, education, and training, and publisher of the official Guidelines for CPR. They’ve developed classes at many levels and have identified classes worldwide. Using their web page, I found five classes within eight miles of my house. Click here to find more details about CPR classes. There are many ways to get trained. They include on-line classes, combination on-line and classroom, and classroom-only classes. Your willingness to get trained may save a life.
Taking steps to improve your heart health can reduce the risk of having a heart attack. Knowing the signs of a heart attack and getting the patient to the hospital quickly can save a life or reduce the damage caused by a heart attack. Knowing CPR can truly make you a life saver. On Valentine’s Day this month take the time to give some thought about how you can improve your heart health or recognize heart attack symptoms and take action.