Recognizing the warning signs of a potential heart attack may help save your life.

As the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, heart disease is an epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about 715,000 Americans suffer a heart attack each year. That’s not the only scary number when it comes to conditions of the heart. A recent CDC survey that, while 92 percent of respondents recognized chest pain as a heart attack symptom, just 27 percent were cognizant of other major symptoms and understood to call 911 when a heart attack was occurring.

heart attack defined

A heart attack usually occurs when a blood clot blocks the flow of blood through an artery that feeds blood to the heart, causing permanent damage to the heart muscle unless treated quickly. The most common cause of heart attacks is atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Although less common, heart attacks can also occur as a result of very low blood pressure, a tear in the heart artery, drug use and small blood clots or tumors that travel to the heart from other parts of the body. Understanding the typical and not-so-obvious symptoms when a heart attack is happening can be a matter of life or death.

warning signs

The most common symptoms of a heart attack, especially for men, include severe chest pain, shortness of breath and pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck, arms or jaw. Conversely, women often experience atypical heart attack symptoms such as nausea or vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, inability to sleep and breaking out in a cold sweat. But everyone is different and not all people suffer the same symptoms or experience them to the same degree. That’s why some people can overlook or ignore heart attack symptoms such as indigestion and fatigue. The key is to listen to your body and seek immediate medical treatment if you experience symptoms of a heart attack.

risk factors

There are many facets that can increase heart attack risk, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and lack of physical activity. Simply put, the more cardiovascular risk factors you have, the greater your risk for a heart attack. Often, people either don’t know they have certain risk factors for heart attack, like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, or don’t have these risk factors under control. The key is knowing your numbers and addressing any risk factors you may be living with to help prevent ever having a heart attack.

Sources of omega-3
You’ve probably heard that omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are good for heart health because they may help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, but did you know that these fatty acids are available in forms other than fish oil?

Krill oil, developed from a small species of crustaceans, is a newer source of omega-3s that has shown some promising potential in early tests. Krill oil is delivered in phospholipid instead of the traditional triglyceride form of fish oil. Phospholipids are the main component of plasma membranes, and early research has indicated that the body may be able to utilize smaller doses of phospholipid omega-3s to achieve the same results as the triglyceride sources.

catching it early

During a heart attack, the heart is being deprived of oxygen-rich blood; with each passing second, heart muscle can be damaged or destroyed. Seeking immediate treatment by calling 911 and taking aspirin, which reduces blood clotting, can help reduce long-term damage to the heart and increase the chances of survival. If you witness someone having a heart attack, CPReven if it’s hands-only can also help deliver oxygen to the brain and greatly improve the person’s chance of survival. For survivors of a heart attack, damaged tissue can result in abnormal heart rhythms, heart failure and valve problems. Those who have suffered a heart attack also have a significantly greater risk for eventually having another one, so taking steps to reduce any cardiovascular risk factors they may have is vitally important. It can’t be repeated enough: Always call 911 when you begin to have any symptoms of a heart attack. Statistics show that women tend to seek help much later than men, and by then, it may be too late. Dont be concerned about having a false alarm or bothering others. In addition, know your numbers. By understanding your potential risk for a heart attack, you can address any risk factors you may have and drastically reduce the probability of an attack or other conditions related to heart disease.

Understanding the symptoms of a heart attack and the risk factors that lead to one can help save your life.

Joanne Foody, M.D., FACC, FAHA, is the Medical Director of the Cardiovascular Wellness Center and Pollin Cardiovascular Wellness Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Dr. Foody has active and international roles in cardiac disease prevention and rehabilitation, with a particular focus on women and heart disease. She is a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association.