Having a healthy heart and knowing the signs of heart attack are always important, but more so during the holiday season.
Dr. JoEllen Kohlman-Petrick, an interventional cardiologist at the Sanford Heart Center in Fargo, warned that she sees more heart attacks during the fall and winter. Anytime people are under more stress, like during Christmas when people stress over money and preparations, they are more susceptible to heart attacks.
Also, increased activity such as shoveling snow or deer hunting in a person who may be otherwise sedentary, can cause stress on the heart.
A heart attack happens when a blood clot, usually caused by plaque in a blood vessel, interferes with the flow of blood to the heart muscle.
Most people recognize the obvious symptoms of a heart attack, said Kohlman-Petrick. These include crushing pain or pressure in the chest.
But other symptoms may go ignored or mistaken for another condition.
These symptoms include chest discomfort or pressure that last more than a few minutes or that comes and goes; discomfort in the upper body such as the jaw, neck or back, one or both arms or in the stomach; shortness of breath; or other symptoms that include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.
Women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure, or extreme fatigue, according the the American Heart Association.
Heart disease is the number one killer of women, according to Kohlman-Petrick. But many women mistake the symptoms for flu or heartburn.
“If you ask women on the street what they afraid of dying from, most of them will say cancer, even though they’re more likely to die from heart disease” said Kohlman-Petrick.
When she talks to women who have had a heart attack, many of them say that, looking back, they felt ill or tired for days or weeks before, she said.
Heart attack symptoms should never be ignored. The longer a heart attack is allowed to continue, the more damage it could cause to the heart.
Anyone who experiences heart attack symptoms should call 9-1-1, Kohlman-Petrick urged.
“I don’t want people to hesitate,” she said, “Don’t feel bad about calling an ambulance.”
While waiting for the ambulance, victims should chew an aspirin.
Diagnosis of a heart attack includes getting a physical history from the victim, blood tests, and an EKG, which can detect changes in the heart.
Treatment usually involves a procedure called angioplasty to find the clot and to place a balloon in the obstructed area to open it up, then placing a stent to hold the blood vessel open, said Kohlman-Petrick.
Another, less-used treatment is to administer a clot-busting drug during the first 90 minutes after the onset of a heart attack, but it is usually only used when a patient can’t be transferred to a heart center quickly, she said.
Some heart attacks can be prevented by making healthy lifestyle choices. Leading a sedentary life, smoking, diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol levels all contribute to heart disease, said Kohlman-Petrick.
Family history may also put people at risk, but there’s nothing that can be done about that.
Besides a healthy diet, Kohlman-Petrick likes to see everyone get at least 30 minutes of exercise most days. And it doesn’t have to be all at the same time, she said. She recommended taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking in the back of the parking lot and walking to the door.
“Any exercise is better than none,” she said.
Also, smokers should stop. And have an annual exam that includes checks of blood pressure and cholesterol, Kohlman-Petrick urged.