February is the month devoted to matters of the heart, so it’s a great time to consider the health of this vital organ. Heart disease once was mostly associated with men, but today it is the No. 1 killer of women, accounting for half a million deaths a year. Like most illnesses, we never think it’s going to happen to us.
Imagine my shock when I phoned my sister-in-law to rave about a great pimento cheese she gave out at Christmas when she stopped to say, “You don’t know, do you?”
“I had a heart attack.”
She described how she had been playing with her 4-year-old grandson and felt a sharp pain along her left jaw. The pain continued down her neck and into her back.
She couldn’t figure out the cause for this severe pain. She took an aspirin, which people who think they are having a heart attack are advised to do. Then, she called her sister, who lives nearby, to see if she could come stay with her grandson while she went to the hospital. When her sister arrived, she insisted on driving them to the hospital.
My sister-in-law, who is 65, agreed to her younger sister’s plan but only after she hung up some shirts of my brother’s that had been in the dryer. Oh, us women and our priorities.
At the hospital, the staff started monitoring my sister-in-law to determine if she had a heart attack. The blood work indicated she had and they scheduled a heart catheterization. She was sent to St. Joseph Hospital in Lexington, where a stint was put in to relieve a 99 percent blockage. Two other valves had 45 percent blockages, but the doctor decided to treat those with medicine.
My sister-in-law has always been slim and trim. She doesn’t smoke. By having a healthy weight and not smoking, she already has ruled out two big factors in heart disease, but she could not overcome inheriting high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
She is doing well, but how many of us would connect the dots of the severe jaw pain to a heart attack? Most people would suspect chest pain or discomfort, but do not suspect the other major symptoms as a heart attack. They are:
- Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, back, arms or upper stomach.
- Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint or nausea
- Pain or discomfort in arms or shoulder.
- Shortness of breath.
If someone is experiencing the signs of a heart attack, it’s important to act immediately by calling 911. A person's chances of surviving a heart attack are increased if emergency treatment is given to the victim as soon as possible.
High blood pressure, high LDL and low HDL cholesterol, and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease. About half of Americans have at least one of these three risk factors. Several other medical conditions and lifestyle choices can also put people at a higher risk for heart disease, including:
Life After an Attack
If you've survived a heart attack, your heart may still be damaged. This could affect your heart's rhythm, pumping action, and blood circulation. You may also be at risk for another heart attack or conditions such as stroke, kidney disorders, and peripheral arterial disease. Your doctor may recommend cardiac rehabilitation, which is a program that can help you make lifestyle changes to improve your heart health and quality of life.
These changes may include taking medication, changing what you eat, increasing your physical activity, stopping smoking, and managing stress.