Heart Health

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Heart Attack

Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack – which equals about 790,000 heart attacks per year!

A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction (MI), occurs when a part of the heart muscle doesn’t receive enough blood flow. The more time that passes without treatment to restore blood flow, the greater the damage to the heart muscle. One out of 5 every heart attacks is silent—the damage is done, but the person is not aware of it. Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the main cause of heart attack. A less common cause is a severe spasm, or sudden contraction, of a coronary artery that can stop blood flow to the heart muscle.

The five major symptoms of a heart attack are -

  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back.

  • Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint.

  • Chest pain or discomfort.

  • Pain or discomfort in arms or shoulder.

  • Shortness of breath.

Other symptoms of a heart attack could include unusual or unexplained tiredness and nausea or vomiting. Women are more likely to have these other symptoms. 

Call 9-1-1

If you notice the symptoms of a heart attack in yourself or someone else, call 9-1-1 immediately. The sooner you get to an emergency room, the sooner you can receive treatment to prevent total blockage and heart muscle damage or reduce the amount of damage. At the hospital, health care professionals can run tests to determine whether a heart attack is occurring and decide the best treatment. In some cases, a heart attack requires cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or electrical shock (defibrillation). Bystanders trained to use CPR or a defibrillator (AED) may be able to help until emergency medical personnel arrive.

Heart Disease Risk Factors

Several health conditions, your lifestyle, and your age and family history can increase your risk for heart disease. Some of the risk factors for heart disease cannot be controlled, such as your age or family history. Heart disease can run in your family. Family members share genes, behaviors, lifestyles, and environments that can influence their health and their risk for disease. Your risk for heart disease can increase based on your age, and your race, or ethnicity. These are called risk factors. About half of all Americans (47%) have at least one of the three key risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking.

You can take steps to lower your risk by changing or managing the factors you can control:

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease. It is a medical condition that occurs when the pressure of the blood in your arteries and other blood vessels is too high. The high pressure, if not controlled, can affect your heart and other major organs of your body, including your kidneys and brain. High blood pressure is often called a “silent killer” because many people do not notice symptoms to signal high blood pressure. Lowering blood pressure by changes in lifestyle or by medication can reduce your risk for heart disease and heart attack.

High Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made by the liver or found in certain foods. Your liver makes enough for your body’s needs, but we often get more cholesterol from the foods we eat. If we take in more cholesterol than the body can use, the extra cholesterol can build up in the walls of the arteries, including those of the heart. This leads to narrowing of the arteries and can decrease the blood flow to the heart, brain, kidneys, and other parts of the body. Some cholesterol is “good,” and some is “bad.” High cholesterol is the term used for high levels of low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, which are considered “bad” because they can lead to heart disease. A higher level of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, or HDL, is considered “good” because it provides some protection against heart disease. A blood test can detect the amount of cholesterol and triglycerides (a related kind of fat) in your blood.


Diabetes also increases the risk for heart disease. Your body needs glucose (sugar) for energy. Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas that helps move glucose from the food you eat to your body’s cells. If you have diabetes, your body doesn’t make enough insulin, can’t use its own insulin as well as it should, or both. Diabetes causes sugars to build up in the blood. The risk of death from heart disease for adults with diabetes is higher than adults who do not have diabetes. Talk to your health care provider about ways to manage diabetes and control other risk factors.


Obesity is excess body fat. Obesity is linked to higher low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol and triglyceride levels and to lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol levels. In addition to heart disease, obesity can also lead to high blood pressure and diabetes. Talk to your health care team about a plan to reduce your weight to a healthy level.

Heart Disease Behavior

Diets high in saturated fats, trans fat, sodium, and cholesterol have been linked to heart disease and related conditions. Your lifestyle choices can increase your risk for heart disease and heart attack. To reduce your risk, your clinician may recommend changes to your lifestyle.

Unhealthy Diet

Diets high in saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol have been linked to heart disease and related conditions, such as atherosclerosis. Also, too much salt (sodium) in the diet can raise blood pressure levels.

Physical Inactivity

Not getting enough physical activity can lead to heart disease. It also can increase the chances of having other medical conditions that are risk factors, including obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Regular physical activity can lower your risk for heart disease.

Too Much Alcohol

Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure levels and the risk for heart disease. It also increases levels of triglycerides, a form of cholesterol, which can harden your arteries.

Women should have no more than 1 drink a day.
Men should have no more than 2 drinks a day.

Tobacco Use

Tobacco use increases the risk for heart disease and heart attack. Cigarette smoking can damage the heart and blood vessels, which increases your risk for heart conditions such as atherosclerosis and heart attack. Also, nicotine raises blood pressure, and carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen that your blood can carry. Exposure to other people’s secondhand smoke can increase the risk for heart disease even for nonsmokers.

Make the decision today to change any risk factors that you can. Talk to your health care team about how you can get heart-healthy!

Beth Ewing, RN, MSN, CNM, WHNP-BC Parish Nurse

Beth Ewing