Recognising the warning signs of heart attacks and strokes and knowing what to do to help prevent them was the topic of a recent “lunch and learn” session presented to Dart employees by Rebekah Brooks, the international representative in the Cayman Islands for Baptist Health South Florida.
Heart disease and strokes are two of the top five leading causes of deaths in the United States and the statistics are very similar in most other countries in the world.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for more than 23 per cent of the total number, and strokes cause the fifth most deaths, with cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease and accidents sandwiched in between.
Lifestyle changes in diet and exercise, abstaining from smoking and cutting down or abstaining from alcohol consumption can all reduce the risks of having a heart attack or stroke.
Brooks said that while messaging about various forms of cancer is quite common in the media, cardiovascular health doesn’t get the same attention despite its position as the leading cause of death.
“Even if you take away two or three messages from this presentation, it’s really important,” Brooks said. Atherosclerosis, the narrowing of arteries caused by the build-up of hardened fatty deposits called plaque, is a major culprit in causing heart disease and strokes.
Diet, being overweight and a lack of exercise are all contributors to plaque buildup. While it is not impossible to reverse some plaque build-up, the best approach is to adopt a lifestyle that prevents it.
However, for some people, plaque build-up is irreversible without surgery and these people are at risk for heart attacks or strokes.
Heart attacks occur when a blockage in the arteries prevents enough oxygen-rich blood from reaching the heart.
Knowing the warning signs of someone having a heart attack and what to do if it is suspected is important in saving lives.
“The warning signs are different in men and women,” said Brooks. The most common symptoms for men are discomfort or tingling in the arms, back, neck, shoulder or jaw; shortness of breath; and chest pain. For women, the most common symptoms of a heart attack are sudden dizziness; a heartburn-like feeling; breaking out in cold sweat; unusual tiredness; and nausea or vomiting.
While the entire list of symptoms might be hard to remember, Brooks suggested that one takeaway from the presentation would be to remember the “4 P’s” of heart attack symptoms: pain, pale skin, perspiration and pulse — which could be either rapid or weak. When checking pulse, Brooks said the best place to do that was at the carotid artery in the neck.
Brooks likened a stroke to a “brain attack” because it is basically caused by a blockage in the arteries that prevents blood and oxygen from reaching the brain. Another kind of stroke, called a hemorrhagic stroke, occurs when blood vessels in the brain burst.
“Without blood flow, brain cells can be damaged or die,” said Brooks, noting that different parts of the brain can be affected, resulting in different consequences for the victim.
A third type of stroke-like occurrence is called a transient ischemic attack, which is sometimes called a “mini stroke.” Although it produces similar symptoms to a stroke, it lasts only a few minutes and causes no permanent brain damage. However, about a third of the people who experience one of these kinds of attacks will eventually have a stroke, with about half of them occurring within a year.
“A transient ischemic attack can serve as both a warning and an opportunity,” Brooks said. “It’s a warning of an impending stroke and an opportunity to take steps to prevent it.”
To remember the warning signs of a person having a stroke, Brooks suggested people think in terms of the acronym FAST. The “F” stands for “face.” If a person’s face is uneven or if when he or she smiles, one side of the mouth lifts and the other side doesn’t, it’s a warning sign that this person has had a stroke. The “A” stands for “arm.” If the person suspected of having a stroke can lift only one arm, it’s a warning sign of a stroke. The “S” stands for “Speech.” A potential stroke victim’s speech will likely be garbled or strange if you ask him or her to repeat a simple sentence. If these symptoms are present in a person suspected of having a stroke, then the “T” stand for “Time,” as it’s time to call 911, immediately.
HEART ATTACKS VS. CARDIAC ARREST
Many people think heart attacks and cardiac arrests are the same thing, but they are much different, Brooks said.
With a heart attack, the victim will still have a pulse, will still be breathing and will be able to answer questions. With a cardiac arrest, the victim will not have a pulse, will not be breathing and will be unconscious.
In the case of a heart attack, 911 should be called immediately. Victims should loosen any tight clothing and sit down with their knees raised and their head and shoulders supported. An automated external defibrillator should be on hand just in case the victim’s heart stops before emergency paramedics arrive. In the case of a cardiac arrest, 911 should also be called immediately, but it is important to try to get the victim’s heart started as soon as possible by using an automated external defibrillator. If one isn’t available, then hand-only CPR should be performed.
“Push hard and fast in the centre of the chest to the beat of any tune that is 100 to 120 beats per minute,” Brooks said, noting that “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees would be an appropriate song.
Many of the risk factors for strokes are similar and related to controllable factors like obesity, smoking, excess alcohol intake, diabetes and high blood pressure. Lifestyle changes in diet and exercise, abstaining from smoking and cutting down or abstaining from alcohol consumption can all reduce the risks of having a heart attack or stroke.
Other risk factors, like increasing age, gender, family history and ethnicity are beyond our control. It is therefore even more important for people who have uncontrollable risk factors to address the risk factors they can control.
“You should know and control your blood pressure and cholesterol levels,” said Brooks.
Regular exercise is one significant way people can reduce their risk of a stroke, she said, adding that people should try to exercise for 30 minutes, five days per week.
Reducing stress is also important in mitigating the risk of having a stroke, Brooks said, adding stress can be a major factor in bringing on