Every 43 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a heart attack. Yet the outlook has never looked better for patients who recognize symptoms and get to the hospital promptly.
Over the past decade, hospitals and health systems have quietly revolutionized the way they treat heart attacks. Ambulances now electronically transmit electrocardiogram (EKG) images ahead when a heart attack patient is on the way, setting the ER and catheterization lab into motion before the patient even gets to the hospital. The result: the critical time window between arriving at the hospital and getting treated has been slashed to an hour or less across much of the country.
But healthcare still faces another big challenge. About 40% of heart attack victims never make it to the hospital to benefit from these successes. About 120,000 people die from heart attacks each year because they didn’t call 911 and seek help in time.
We invite you to take aim at these numbers. Here’s how you can help yourself or someone close to you from becoming a casualty.
1. Know the symptoms
A heart attack happens when plaque in the arteries of the heart becomes inflamed, ruptures, and forms a clot that blocks blood flow to the heart muscle. Many people experience any one or more of these “classic” symptoms:
- chest pain
- pain in one or both arms
- pain in the back, shoulders, neck, jaw, or upper part of the stomach (which may be mistaken for indigestion)
- shortness of breath
But as many as one-third of heart attack patients, particularly those who are older, female, or diabetic, don’t have chest pain. Elderly people are less likely to have arm pain, nausea, vomiting, and sweating and more likely to experience confusion, fainting, and difficult breathing.
In general, heart attack symptoms are often vague, come on gradually, and stop and then start again. Many people don’t feel well days or even weeks earlier. Bottom line: If you’re feeling fundamentally different, get checked out and explain your concerns as specifically as possible.
2. Call 911
Every minute you wait to go to the hospital, the less likely you are to survive a heart attack and to avoid damage to the heart muscle that can cause heart failure. Calling 911 is like having the hospital come to you so that treatment gets started while you’re on the way.
You have the best chance of a good outcome if you get to the hospital within an hour. However, people often ignore their symptoms, denying their importance, or waste time, not realizing how serious their symptoms could be. They call their primary care doctor, take antacids, look up their symptoms on the Internet, or even finish cooking dinner.
If you are having symptoms, share it with someone—your spouse or a neighbor—then call 911. While you are waiting for paramedics to arrive, chew a non enteric-coated aspirin. Though aspirin won’t stop a heart attack, it might limit the damage.
Never drive yourself to the hospital or have someone drive you there. Ambulances have defibrillators and clot-busting medications and often are able to initiate treatment before you get to the hospital. EMTs also know the best hospital to take you for a cardiac emergency.
3. Stay calm
When EMTs arrive, calmly describe your symptoms and any risk factors. Have a list of your current medications on hand.
Don’t worry if your symptoms turn out to be a false alarm. Too often people worry about looking foolish or bothering medical professionals. Remember that they would rather see you and send you home than to have lost you to a heart attack, and your loved ones for sure feel the same way.
4. Take care of your heart
Of course, it’s best to avoid heart problems from developing in the first place. To do so, maintain a healthy weight; stop smoking; manage risk factors (like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar); and get moving. That can help, even if you end up having a heart attack. Your fitness level before a heart attack is a strong predictor of your long-term survival, according to recent data.
By following a heart-healthy lifestyle and removing the common roadblocks to treatment, you’ve got a good chance of surviving a heart attack—or avoiding a cardiovascular crisis altogether.
For additional information about evaluating your individual risk, go to www.knowyourrisk.com.