Coronary artery disease, a condition that causes heart attacks, is responsible for one in every seven deaths in the United States alone. Every year, more than 600,000 people in the United States will have their first heart attack, while another 300,000 will have another heart attack previously having survived their first. Sometimes heart attacks come on suddenly and intensely, but most times they begin with mild pain or discomfort. Knowing the signs of a heart attack could potentially save your life or save the life of someone close to you, as fast action is essential for a better outcome. Some of the signs that you may be having a heart attack include:

Discomfort in Your Chest Area

Most times, a heart attack will begin with chest pain which lasts for several minutes. It could go away and come back again, and the sensation can feel like uncomfortable pressure, pain, squeezing or fullness.

Discomfort Affecting Other Areas of the Upper Body

The discomfort isn’t necessarily confined to your chest as it can extend to one or both arms, your neck or back, or stomach, and even to your jaw.

Shortness of Breath

Feeling short of breath can occur with or without other signs of discomfort or pain.

Other symptoms of a heart attack include feeling nauseous or lightheaded or breaking out into a cold sweat. If you notice these symptoms, it is worth seeking emergency medical care, even if you aren’t sure you could be having a heart attack. Contacting the emergency services will allow you to begin treatment sooner, while you are on the way to the hospital, and you will usually receive faster treatment once you arrive too.

All too often, people will wait two or more hours before seeking medical attention. They feel it will be too embarrassing to have a false alarm while others are scared to admit they might be having a heart attack. These are understandable feelings, but they could cost you your life.

What is Coronary Artery Disease, and How Can It Cause Heart Attacks?

Your heart is supplied with blood via your coronary arteries, but blood flow can be compromised if plaque consisting of high cholesterol and other fatty deposits builds up in these arteries, preventing the flow of blood. Coronary artery disease takes years to develop and usually only causes signs when the arteries are significantly damaged.

What are the Risk Factors for Coronary Artery Disease?

There are several risk factors for coronary artery disease, and one is having a sedentary lifestyle. Another risk factor is genetics, where close family members are diagnosed with coronary artery disease at an early age. For example, if your brother or father received this diagnosis before age 55, or if you have a sister or mother with this disease and who were diagnosed before age 65, your risk is higher. As you get older, your risk of coronary artery disease increases because aging increases the risk of damage to the walls of the arteries.

Men may be more prone to developing heart disease, but the risk for women after menopause increases. Having certain medical conditions also increases the risk of coronary artery disease and these conditions include sleep apnoea, diabetes, having high cholesterol or high triglyceride count, and high blood pressure. Other heart conditions such as heart valve disease, atrial fibrillation, and tachycardia increase your risk too, so if you have a history of any of these conditions or are concerned about your heart health, it’s worth getting a proper checkup from a cardiologist.

How Can a Cardiologist Tell If I Have Heart Disease?

When you visit a cardiologist, they can assess your overall health and will give you a physical examination, and they can also recommend specific tests to determine the condition of your heart. One test you are most likely to have is an electrocardiogram that measures the electrical impulses traveling to your heart. It can detect heart irregularities that may have been caused by a previous heart attack or which can show a stroke is imminent by providing measurements on an ECG graph. Another test is an echocardiogram where sound waves are used to create an image of your heart providing information about blood clots or evidence of prior heart attacks.

One of the most effective tests for coronary artery disease is stress testing, where your heart is measured at rest with an electrocardiogram and is then measured when it is under stress while you exercise on a treadmill or stationary bike which helps to get your heart pumping. A specialized x-ray called a coronary calcium CT scan can detect locations of calcium-rich plaque in arteries and is used to measure the specific amount of plaque present in your arteries.

Your cardiologist will use the information from these tests to determine if you need medication or surgery, or both.

Preventing Heart Disease-Related Deaths

Now for the good news as approximately 200,000 of heart disease-related deaths may be preventable with lifestyle changes and other measures. Implementing lifestyle changes helps to decrease the buildup of fatty deposits, strengthening your heart. When you have a healthier lifestyle, it can improve your overall well-being and may help you avoid more invasive treatments like stent placement, angioplasty and coronary bypass surgery. Taking simple steps can help to make a significant difference to your heart health. These steps include keeping an eye on your blood sugar levels and including more fruits and vegetables in your diet to lower cholesterol. 

If you have high blood pressure, make sure you follow a low sodium diet, and some people find it helpful to reduce stress levels perhaps by taking more exercise, practicing yoga or meditating. If you are overweight, make a real effort to lose weight and your cardiologist may refer you to a dietician for further advice.

Exercising every day is critical for good general health, and even a brisk half an hour walk will help a lot. Adults are recommended to take at least 150 minutes of exercise every week. If it has been a while since you exercised regularly, check with your doctor or with a cardiologist on how to exercise safely. Other factors that can decrease the risk of coronary artery disease include decreasing alcohol consumption and quitting smoking.

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