Heart Attacks - The Risk Factors and Preventive Measures
World Heart Day is on September 26 this year, and the whole of September is National Heart Awareness month in South Africa. Here’s a primer on heart attacks and tips on staying heart healthy.
What is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack is caused by an interruption of blood supply to a part of the heart muscle. This is often caused by a blood clot in a coronary artery that provides the heart with fresh blood. Interruption of the blood supply causes damage or destruction to a part of the heart muscle.
Symptoms of a Heart Attack
The common symptoms of a heart attack may include some or all of the following conditions:
- Pressure or pain in the centre of the chest that lasts for more than a minute.
- Pain that extends beyond the chest down the arm, through the shoulder, into the back or even up to the lower jaw.
- Breaking out in a sweat.
- Shortness of breath.
- Feelings of nausea and vomiting.
For women, the symptoms can also include clammy skin or unusual tiredness.
Unlike the dramatic events often shown in movies or on TV, a heart attack can often go undetected. It can strike without warning, even while you’re resting, but many people who have suffered a heart attack experience periods of chest pains for several days or even weeks before the attack.
What are the Risk Factors?
There are several factors that contribute to the risk of a heart attack, some of which we are able to control and some that we cannot.
Controllable Risk Factors:
Smoking or taking illegal stimulant drugs can damage the walls of the blood vessels. Obesity and lack of physical activity can cause high levels of the wrong type of cholesterol (LDL) in our blood. Similarly too much stress in our life can also raise cholesterol levels.
If you’re a woman, then you should be aware that receiving hormone replacement therapy (HRT) during menopause could increase the risk of a heart attack.
Factors Outside our Control:
Risk factors over which we have no control include age – men over 45 and women over 45 are more susceptible to heart attacks. If our parents suffered from heart attacks or diabetes, then our chances of suffering a heart attack are that much higher.
How to Protect Your Health and Reduce the Risk Factors:
While age and heredity are obviously beyond our control, there’s much we can do to lower the risk of a heart attack.
If you’re a smoker, quitting the habit will make a huge difference in cutting down your risk of suffering a heart attack. Similarly, weight reduction and some form of regular physical activity boosts your heart health.
The food we eat plays an important role in our susceptibility to heart attacks. By eating more fruit and vegetables, together with foods rich in omega-3 fats – such as fish – that reduce the amount of cholesterol in our blood, heart attack risks are lessened.
We can also make sure that we are aware of the state of our bodies through regular checks of blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels. Heightened levels in these factors can up the possibility of heart disease or developing diabetes, which in turn increases the chances of a heart attack.