Know the signs of a heart attack and don’t ignore or dismiss them; quick action can be the difference between life and death

Many people who have a heart attack initially ignore the symptoms or dismiss them. For the best chance of survival and preserving heart function, you should not ignore these symptoms, and should get help quickly.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and Kentucky. Nationwide, it causes about one in four deaths. The age-adjusted death rate from heart disease in Kentucky is 208.2 per 100,000 per year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Below are some questions and answers about the symptoms and treatment of heart attacks and narrowed aortic valves, as reported by Gina Kolata for the New York Times.

How do you know if you are having a heart attack? Most people feel pain, pressure or squeezing in their chest and about one-third of people have symptoms in addition to or instead of chest pain that include abdominal pain, heavy sweating, back pain, neck and jaw pain, nausea and vomiting, Kolata reports. WebMD adds pain that radiates down one arm, indigestion or a choking feeling, extreme weakness, anxiety or shortness of breath, and rapid or irregular heartbeats to the list.

How can you decide if symptoms other than chest pain are actually from a heart attack? If your symptoms come on suddenly, or if they worsen over a period of hours or days, call 911 and get to an emergency room. “The best time to treat a heart attack is within one to two hours of the first onset of symptoms,” says WebMD. “Waiting longer increases the damage to your heart and reduces your chances of survival.”

Do women have different symptoms than men? “Probably not,” Dr. Mary Norine Walsh, vice president of the American College of Cardiology, told Kolata. Walsh noted that women, however, are more likely to delay seeking treatment and doctors are more likely to dismiss their symptoms, especially if the woman is younger.

The American Heart Association says women often attribute signs of a heart attack to the flu, acid reflux or the normal aging process, even though it is the number one killer of women. It also noted that symptoms in women can be subtler, like shortness of breath, upper back pressure that feels like squeezing, lightheadedness or actually fainting.

What should you do if you are having heart attack symptoms? Call 911 for an ambulance to take you to the emergency room immediately. Do not drive yourself and do not have a friend or family member drive you unless you have no other choice. Kolata notes that paramedics are trained to treat heart attacks and are less likely to get stuck in traffic.

How can you find out if your local hospital is able to treat heart attacks quickly? Don’t waste time fighting with your paramedic when you are having a heart attack, they will know the best place to take you, Kolata writes.

That being said, some hospitals are faster than others in treating heart attacks, but the time to research this information is before you are in the throws of a heart attack, Kolata writes. To find out this information, she suggest you ask each hospital what its “door to balloon time” is, which will tell you how long it takes the hospital to open a blocked coronary artery with a balloon after you arrive at the emergency room. If they don’t have this information, ask if they take certain steps to speed up treatment. For example ask: Do paramedics transmit a patient’s electrocardiogram to the hospital en route?; Does the ER doctor read the EKG and send out a single call to summon the cardiology team?; And are the team members on call required to be within 30 minutes of the hospital?

What are the symptoms of a severely narrowed aortic valve? There are three classic symptoms of this disease of aging: shortness of breath, a feeling of heaviness and pain in the chest, and fainting, according to cardiologists. They also noted that these symptoms are often mistakenly attributed to the normal process of aging.

How can a doctor know if symptoms are caused by a narrowed aortic valve? The doctor will listen  for a heart murmur in the patient’s chest and can order an echocardiogram, which will reveal the narrowed artery and the extent of the damage.

Should everyone with a severely narrowed artery have it replaced? Not everyone should undergo treatment, Kolata reports, so ask your doctor if you are a good candidate. The latest treatment is a transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR, which allows doctors to replace valves without doing open-heart surgery. High risk patients who would have been considered at too great a risk of dying from open-heart surgery have a chance to have a valve replacement, but sometimes elderly patients whose health is compromised are not good candidates.

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