To mark World Heart Day (29th September 2013) the World Heart Federation is raising awareness about cardiovascular disease (CVD).
CVD is a condition that causes a whole host of health complications, with one of the greatest being potential to cause heart attacks.
We asked experts Professor Kathryn Taubert, chief science officer World Heart Federation, and Doireann Maddock, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, for vital information on heart attacks, including the causes, symptoms and what preventative measures can be adopted to ensure a healthy heart.
What is a heart attack and what causes one?
Kathryn told us a heart attack (myocardial infarction) is an acute event that occurs when one of the arteries supplying oxygen-rich blood to a part of the heart muscle gets blocked.
Heart attacks are caused when the heart is starved of blood and oxygen, which damages the heart muscle, Doireann added.
What are the symptoms?
“Some heart attacks are sudden and intense — the 'movie heart attack', where no one doubts what's happening. But most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people affected aren't sure what's wrong and wait too long before getting help” Kathryn says.
Here are the warning signs:
- Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the centre of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that 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 with or without chest discomfort
- Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness
Kathryn also explained that, although chest pain and discomfort are the main symptoms for both men and women, the women are more likely to show other symptoms too. “Particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain,” she says.
Who is most at risk?
Your risk level is made up of a range of factors including some you can change and some you can't.
Doireann explained, for example, how heart attacks are more common among the over 40s but younger people can also be affected. Age, along with your ethnicity and family history can raise your risk of a heart attack.
However some factors can be controlled such as smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
How can heart attacks be prevented?
Kathryn says the good news is that up to 80% of premature deaths from coronary heart could be avoided if the modifiable risk factors are controlled. People should be encouraged to "eat right, move around a little and not to smoke, ever.”
"The single most important thing you can do for your heart health is to quit smoking. Doing at least two-and-half hours of moderate intensity physical activity every week can also help reduce your risk of suffering a heart attack. Eating a healthy balanced diet is important, too, and if you're over 40 you should ask your doctor or nurse for a heart health check to assess your risk of having a heart attack in the next 10 years," says Doireann.
And for more information, support and guidance, you can call the British Heart Foundation’s cardiac nurses and heart health advisor on 0300 330 3311.
What to do if a heart attack is suspected
Both Doireann and Kathryn stress the importance of calling 999 for an ambulance at the very first sign of a possible heart attack. “Learn the above-mentioned warning signs to familiarise yourself in case of an emergency,” Kathryn advises.
Doireann adds: “Every second counts and calling the emergency services immediately means that you should get treatment sooner, which will increase your chances of survival.”
The World Heart Federation's Ground Miles campaign challenges people around the world to collectively walk 5 million miles by the end of this year, as part of its promotion of exercise as a part of a healthy lifestyle. Find out more about the campaign and download their app