Recognize a heart attack, lower risk for having one


Editor’s note: During February’s Heart Month observance, emergency medicine provider Meenal Sharkey, M.D., provides information on recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack and how to lower your risk for having one.

“Medic 32 here now,” blared overhead.

She was wheeled quickly past my desk by frazzled Emergency Medical Services providers – the speed in which they walked beckoned me to her room.

She sat on the bed, pouring sweat and looking pale and scared. The hushed report from the medic stated she had been in her normal state of health until an hour ago, when she started having shortness of breath with crushing chest pain. She felt as if she would vomit and was lightheaded. On visual inspection, I noted the paleness of her skin, the glistening of sweat that only comes when the body is in distress and the discomfort through which she spoke. I urgently asked the nurse to get an EKG, a visualization of the inner workings of her heart.

Her EKG showed a STEMI – or a heart attack. Fortunately for her, she had been brought to my trauma bay, located in a hospital with a cath lab, where some of the best cardiologists in the state could safely open the blockage that was causing her heart muscle to die.

The heart is supplied by blood vessels on its surface. As we age, and as our health declines, the vessels feeding the muscles of the heart can become filled with plaque. Unfortunately, these plaques can rupture, leading to a blockage that causes the blood flow to the muscles of the heart to abruptly stop. Without blood flow, the muscle dies and this can lead to permanent damage to the heart. Luckily, if we can open the blockage quickly, we can save the muscle and the heart can go on beating normally.

A heart attack can happen to anyone but certain people are at higher risk. The risk factors you can control of are called modifiable risk factors. Those that you can’t control are called inherent risk factors. Risk factors include:

Age – Your heart attack risk increases if you are 45 and older. The older you are, the higher the risk.

Sex – Men have a higher chance of having cardiac disease than women

Health – Having high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes all put you at higher risk for cardiac disease, especially if you are not controlling your conditions with medication

Lifestyle – Smoking, a lack of regular exercise, obesity and a diet rich in processed foods and/or high in fat can significantly increase your risk of having a heart attack

Genetics – A family history of heart disease increases your risk for heart attack, especially if those family members were diagnosed young with heart disease

Know symptoms of heart attack

The most common sign of a heart attack is often chest pain. Classically, the chest pain is on the left side, felt as a pressure and often includes left arm or jaw pain. Sometimes, a person can also have nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, shortness of breath and diaphoresis (sweating) associated with their chest pain.

Not everyone will have chest pain with a heart attack. Women, the elderly and diabetics can experience atypical symptoms, such as sudden shortness of breath, back pressure instead of chest pressure, fatigue especially with activity, generalized weakness, unrelenting vomiting or even abdominal pain when they experience a heart attack. It’s important to know the signs of heart attack so you know when to get immediate care.

A heart attack is extremely serious – if part of the heart muscle dies, the heart cannot beat well enough to get blood to all the parts of the body. This can limit your future functionality, endurance and ultimately quality of life. Thankfully, there are things we can do to reduce the chance of a heart attack:

Get a tune up…often! Make sure you see your family doctor regularly for well visits. This is when your primary care physician checks your vitals to see if you have high blood pressure, draws blood to check your cholesterol and screens you for diabetes and other medical problems.

Stop Smoking. Smoking is the leading cause of death and disease in the United States. Smoking is the most important modifiable risk factor that helps reduce your chance of having a heart attack. You are twice as likely to have a heart attack if you smoke. Health benefits from stopping smoking can be seen in as little of 20 minutes after quitting.

Embrace the DASH Diet. DASH stands for Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension. It encourages fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy. You can have meat, however, choosing leaner cuts and substituting red meat with fish and poultry help reduce your chances of having a heart attack. The good news is that the choices on the diet are varied and tasty!

Get Moving. As little as 30 minutes of exercise a day is all it can take to make a significant difference in your life. It’s easier to do that you might think. A dance party in the kitchen, running in place while watching a TV show or even a brisk walk outside after dinner can help toward 30 minutes a day. Start slow if you’re just starting to exercise and challenge yourself to advance a little each day.

Know your target weight. Your ideal body weight is determined by your height and gender. Carrying more weight than this can put stress on your heart. Having a goal that you’re working toward can help motivate you and once you achieve that goal, your risk for cardiac disease, as well as other medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, all decrease.

Take your risk factors seriously and address them head on. Take ownership of your health! Your heart and quality of life will benefit greatly from it. Know how your lifestyle, genetics, and physique affect your health and work toward protecting your future. You can do it!


By Meenal Sharkey, M.D.

Meenal Sharkey, M.D., is a residency trained, board certified emergency medicine specialist. She is a faculty member of the Emergency Medicine program at Doctor’s Hospital. She works for US-Acute Care Solutions at Mercy Health – Springfield and Urbana hospitals.

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