Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can strike people of all ages and backgrounds. But what can you do to reduce the odds of falling victim to it? February is heart month, and there’s plenty of useful info out there that could potentially save your life.
Prevention is paramount to fighting heart disease. Maintaining a healthy weight, exercising at least 2 hours and 30 minutes a week and eating foods low in saturated and trans fats will help. But there’s another step many Americans don’t think about: quitting smoking. Smoking not only causes lung cancer, it also increases blood pressure and the blood’s tendency to clot.
“Smoking is the single most preventable risk factor,” says Dr. Al Timothy, a cardiologist and interventional cardiologist at Thibodaux Regional Medical Center. “The benefits of quitting are very measurable at any age.”
Another way to prevent heart disease is by seeking a doctor’s assistance in treating underlying conditions that can contribute to a heart attack or stroke. These include diabetes, high blood pressure, and having high levels of LDL cholesterol.
“No one questions doing maintenance on their car, like changing the oil … But people might go years upon years and never see a doctor to do preventive maintenance on their bodies,” says Mark Arceneaux, director of the cardiac cath lab at Thibodaux Regional Medical Center.
It’s important to note that heart disease is not always accompanied by warning signs. Just because you feel fine doesn’t mean everything’s fine. Dr. Timothy says that for many people, the first symptom of heart disease is a heart attack (and possibly death).
A Heart Attack
How can you tell if you or a loved one are suffering from a heart attack? Each person is different and heart attacks can vary in their presentation. The most common symptom involves discomfort in the center of the chest that last more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. It often feels like crushing pressure or fullness. But sometimes the sensation isn’t much different than indigestion.
Discomfort in other areas of the body is also a warning sign. Shortness of breath, pain in one or both arms, the back, the neck, the jaw, or the stomach can indicate a heart attack.
Many people are unaware that heart disease is also the leading cause of death for women in the United States. Their risk factors and symptoms are similar to those for men, but the American Heart Association states that women are more likely than men to experience some of the symptoms other than chest pain.
If you suspect you or a loved one is suffering from a heart attack, seek medical attention immediately. While it’s true that some people go to the hospital and are told they’re only suffering from indigestion or a panic attack, the old cliché “better safe than sorry” applies here.
“The outcome is better the sooner we can open the artery,” Dr. Timothy says.
While waiting for medical attention, taking aspirin will help. Aspirin inhibits platelets, which triggers blood clotting. It’s important to chew a full-strength, uncoated aspirin (don’t swallow it) for the quickest results. This prevents the clots from growing.
For more information, visit the American Heart Association’s website at heart.org or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at cdc.gov/heartdisease.