Am I really having a heart attack?
Heart disease is already the number-one killer of men and women in the United States. Now it's emerging as the number-one killer worldwide.
Even with heart disease accounting for more than 800,000 deaths in the United States each year, people having heart attacks delay seeking medical help an average of two to six hours, decreasing their chances of optimal recovery.
University of Kentucky College of Nursing Professor and Linda C. Gill Chair Debra Moser, D.N.Sc., recommends seeking treatment as soon as possible.
"We know as clinicians that when people seek treatment early, they can take advantage of lifesaving therapies," Moser says.
Preventing heart disease
There are several reasons why people wait to seek medical treatment.
"They may be too anxious to process what's happening, or they are embarrassed to go to the hospital. As a result, they are wasting valuable time," says Moser.
The best way to avoid heart disease is prevention. Smoking, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, lack of exercise, and obesity are all risks for heart disease. Kentucky has the fifth highest rate of heart disease in the United States.
Heart disease affects women as well as men. Because of estrogen, fewer pre-menopausal women develop coronary heart disease: estrogen can protect women from arteries clogging with cholesterol. However, post-menopausal women quickly catch up to men in the number of coronary heart disease cases.
Recognizing the signs
According to the American Heart Association, some heart attacks are sudden and intense, but most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Here are the signs:
- Chest discomfort, not necessarily intense. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
- Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
- Shortness of breath. This feeling often comes along with chest discomfort, but it can occur before.
- Other signs: these may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.
You may have all of these symptoms, or just one or two, so don't be too quick to dismiss them.
If you have heart disease
For those with heart disease or those who know someone with heart disease, Moser recommends the following:
- Learn to recognize symptoms of an evolving heart attack.
- Take an aspirin when symptoms start, to reduce blood clots in the coronary arteries (it's best to discuss this with your doctor in advance).
- Recognize possible emotional reactions to a heart attack.
- Call 911 rather than driving to the hospital.
HEART DISEASE INFORMATION
For more information about heart disease symptoms, treatment, and prevention, go online to these Web sites:
American Heart Association, www.americanheart.org
National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute, www.nhlbi.nih.gov/actintime/ index.htm