DR. HOOK- Heart attack: Know symptoms, lose weight, work out

Chest pains: yes, certain things give me chest pains. People who don't put their shopping cart away! Grocery stores should handcuff the cart to such patrons and un-handcuff them when they return the cart. Litter bugs! Can't you put your cigarette in your ashtray for proper disposal later? The highway is not a garbage disposal. Bloggers! Everyone is a critic nowadays, especially those with an IQ lower than their shoe size.

But when it comes to a heart attack, "chest pain" isn't what people really describe. It's more like a discomfort: a squeezing, pressure sensation under the breast bone that usually spreads to the left shoulder (sometimes jaw) and down the left arm. Someone experiencing a heart attack might feel like Dumbo the elephant is standing on their chest. This discomfort is called angina.

Other symptoms associated with a heart attack include feeling short of breath– kind of like the Olympic athletes sucking in fumes in Beijing. For some, nausea or upset stomach can occur which feels like indigestion. Lightheadedness can occur if the heart stops pumping effectively, and if severe cardiovascular shock (like no blood pressure) occurs. Profuse sweating and palpitations from all the adrenaline might occur as well.

So when is it time to call 911? Better safe than sorry! Anyone experiencing angina who thinks she's having a heart attack should act immediately. Of the 1.2 million Americans experiencing Acute Coronary Syndrome (ACS) (i.e. heart attack) a year, 38 percent will die. One in five deaths in the USA is due to coronary heart diseases, making it the #1 cause of death in adult Americans. 

 The sooner ACS is treated, the better the prognosis. Heart muscle tissue starts to die (it suffocates, in a sense) after 20 minutes of lack of blood supply due to a clogged artery. So the sooner the clogged artery is opened up, the less damage that occurs. Also arrhythmias resulting from ACS are a main cause of death, so medical attention is essential.

But not everyone who has a heart attack experiences angina– up to a third of cases! It's more silent than White House secret information. Diabetics and those with a previous heart attack are more susceptible to a silent heart attack, and we learn about them later from incidental findings from an EKG or heart study. 

For many people, angina is not the first sign of coronary heart disease. That would be dyspnea on exertion– meaning becoming short-winded easily on tasks that require the heart to pulp: walking, going up a flight of stairs, moving furniture, etc. It appears that for women this is more of a tell-tale sign of heart disease than for men. 

What can you do to lower your risk of coronary heart disease? Don't smoke. Not only is smoking as appealing to me as hunting with Dick Cheney, it's a big risk factor for heart disease (not to mention cancer, osteoporosis, and lung disease). Obesity and diabetes in this country are literally a huge problem and a leading contributor to heart disease, so eating right and regular exercise are vital.

High blood pressure is the silent killer because it puts a strain on the heart of its unaware victim. Bad cholesterol levels also don't act like the robot in Lost In Space– "Danger! Danger!"– until the arteries are too clogged up.

Getting older, your gender, and having a significant family history of heart disease can't be changed, but the other risk factors can. Having a strong heart allows people to do more and live better. I hope readers take this information to heart.