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Quick response can reduce heart attack-related deaths

Each year, about 1.1 million people in the U.S. have heart attacks, and almost half of them die. Many more people could recover from heart attacks if they got help faster, a Texas AgriLife Extension Service specialist said.

Of the people who die from heart attacks, about half die within an hour of the first symptoms and before they reach the hospital, said Andrew Crocker, AgriLife Extension gerontology health specialist.

A heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction, occurs when the blood flow that feeds a part of the heart is blocked, Crocker explained.

"Like all of your body, the heart needs a steady supply of blood," he said. "Without blood, heart cells are injured, causing pain or pressure. If blood flow is not restored, heart cells may die."

The heart attack is the end of a process that typically occurs over several hours, Crocker said. If blood flow can be restored in time, damage to the heart may be limited or prevented.

Common signs and symptoms of a heart attack may include: pressure or a squeezing pain in the center of the chest lasting for more than a few minutes; pain extending to the shoulder, arm, back, teeth and/or jaw; prolonged pain in the upper abdomen; shortness of breath; fainting; and nausea and vomiting.

Signs and symptoms of a heart attack in women may be different or less noticeable, Crocker said. In addition to the symptoms above, heart attack symptoms in women may include heartburn, clammy skin, dizziness and/or unusual or unexplained fatigue.

Not all people who have heart attacks experience the same symptoms, he warned. Some people have none at all. The earliest predictor of an attack may be recurrent chest pain that is triggered by exertion and relieved by rest.

Certain factors may increase the risk of a heart attack, including but not limited to: smoking, high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol, lack of exercise and/or obesity, diabetes, stress, alcohol and family history.

"You can modify or eliminate many of these risk factors to reduce your chances of having a heart attack," Crocker said. "However, you cannot change some risk factors, such as heredity and gender."

Men are generally at greater risk for heart attack than women, he said, however, the risk for women increases after menopause.

"If you are having a heart attack or suspect you are having one, act immediately: call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number," Crocker said. "If you do not have access to emergency medical services, have someone drive you to the nearest hospital. Drive yourself only if there are absolutely no other options."

He said if someone is unconscious from a presumed heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately, but it also may be necessary to begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation in order to keep blood and oxygen flowing.

"If you have not been trained in CPR, the hands-only CPR approach should be used: compress the chest at a rate of 100 beats per minute," Crocker said.

The National Institutes of Health recommends that the person not be given anything by mouth, unless a heart medication, such as nitroglycerin, has been prescribed. It also states that aspirin, because of its risks, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for preventing heart attacks.

The use of an automatic external defibrillator, if available, that shocks the heart back into a normal rhythm may provide emergency treatment before a person suffering a heart attack reaches the hospital, he said.

"It is never too late to take steps to prevent a heart attack--even if you have already had one," Crocker said. "While drug therapy may be an important part of reducing the risk of a second heart attack and helping a damaged heart function better, lifestyle factors also play a critical role in heart attack prevention and recovery."

Taking the following steps may help in prevention and/or recovery from a heart attack:

--Do not smoke.

--Check your cholesterol.

--Get regular medical checkups.

--Control your blood pressure.

--Exercise regularly; 30 minutes per day, most days per week.

--Maintain a healthy weight.

--Eat a heart-healthy diet.

--Manage stress.

More information can be found through the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, at http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov.

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