The heart is the most important muscle in our body. It is responsible for pumping nutrient and oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body and carrying away waste products. But what happens when the heart is damaged, as in heart attacks?
What is a heart attack?
Ideally, the arteries that carry the heart’s blood supply stay clear and open. If any buildup occurs in these arteries, it can lead to the formation of a clot. A clot in the arteries can prevent oxygen from reaching the heart. This is what causes heart attacks. The heart will eventually heal, but the resultant scar tissue won’t work quite as well as the original heart cells. The heart’s pumping ability will also be diminished after a heart attack.
What are the symptoms of a heart attack?
Many people think a heart attack equals a pain in the chest, but symptoms vary person to person. It is important to know all of them and to make sure your parent knows them as well. Symptoms of a heart attack include:
- Pain and/or pressure in the center or left-side of the chest, or along the arm or back
- Bad heartburn or nausea
- Feeling faint or weak
- Irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
Not all of these symptoms will necessarily be present. The pain of a heart attack may seem to radiate out to various parts of the body. Your loved one might feel an uncomfortable sense of pressure, rather than pain.
What should I do in the event of a heart attack?
If you suspect your loved one is having a heart attack, do not delay or wait it out. A quickly treated heart attack causes much less damage than one treated hours after it occurred. Call 911 rather than driving your parent to the hospital yourself. Every second is crucial in a heart attack and treatment can begin on the way to the hospital. Keep your loved one as calm as possible while you wait for help to arrive.
Assisted living communities always call 911 in case of an emergency. Staff, including caregivers and administrators, are trained to seek professional medical services as quickly as possible.
How is a heart attack treated?
Treatment of a heart attack involves opening the blocked artery to restore blood flow to the heart. This may be done by medication or through surgery. A heart attack is diagnosed by evaluating symptoms and interviewing the patient. Tests such as the electrocardiogram (EKG), which assesses damage to the heart, can be helpful as well. Blood test and imaging screens will pinpoint the extent and location of the heart attack.
How can heart attacks be prevented?
While all of this may sound scary, it is important to note that a heart attack usually doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is generally the result of years of lifestyle decisions that have damaged the arteries surrounding the heart. In short, heart attacks are usually preventable. Preventing a heart attack is a matter of preventing or treating heart disease, the gradual buildup of plaque in the arteries. You might suspect heart disease if Dad gets chest pain when he exerts himself.
A common scenario is chest pain after shoveling snow, especially if the pain goes away after Dad rests. He may also feel abnormally tired, or have heart palpitations or shortness of breath. His doctor may inform him that he has high cholesterol or high blood pressure, or that he is overweight. These are risk factors for heart disease. If he is advised to make lifestyle changes, he will need support and encouragement to follow through.
Keeping cholesterol and blood pressure levels low is key in preventing both heart disease and heart attacks. This is best accomplished through a healthy low-fat diet which includes plenty of whole grains, fruit, and vegetables; regular exercise; and avoiding smoking and alcohol consumption. Regular check-ups are the key to catching any issues quickly.
Keeping an eye on the scale and controlling any other conditions, such as diabetes, is also important. If Mom or Dad is stressed, encourage them to seek treatment for that as well. Stress has been shown to increase heart attack risk. Prescription medications may be helpful in lowering cholesterol, thinning the blood, or reducing blood pressure. If your loved one has already had a heart attack, these same measures can help prevent a recurrence. It is never too late to help your loved one improve their heart health.