Beyond Trim: Learn to recognize the early signs of a heart attack

Maybe you bought a card, or flowers, or chocolate for someone on Valentine’s Day, but there’s another way you can show you care for your loved ones (and anyone else you come in contact with) during the month of February and beyond.

February is American Heart Month, when we raise awareness of heart disease, the number 1 killer of Americans. I am writing this on President’s Day, so it seems appropriate to mention that the first American Heart Month was declared in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had suffered a heart attack.

While we tend to focus on prevention during Heart Month there is another important consideration when it comes to preserving heart health, and that is learning the early signs of a heart attack. Recognizing the signs and seeking treatment early on can help prevent damage to the heart muscle and improve the chances for survival.

Early Heart Attack Care education is a public awareness campaign created by Dr. Raymond Bahr. Its primary goal is to promote awareness that heart attacks have “beginnings” that can occur weeks before the actual attack. EHAC focuses on intervention during these beginnings to help prevent heart attack and cardiac arrest.

The second goal of EHAC is to teach the public that individuals with heart attack symptoms must be evaluated and treated in an emergency department or chest pain center.

Not every heart attack displays the same symptoms, and many people ignore the early signs. Early heart attack symptoms can include shortness of breath without exertion, heartburn, discomfort or pain in the chest, neck, shoulders, arms, or jaw, and feelings of anxiety or impending doom.

The EHAC education campaign asks people to become familiar with these harbingers, to watch for them in themselves and others, and to make the following pledge: “I understand that heart attacks have beginnings and on occasion, signs of an impending heart attack may include chest discomfort, shortness of breath, shoulder and/or arm pain, and weakness. These may occur hours or weeks before the actual heart attack. I solemnly swear that if it happens to me or anyone I know, I will call 9-1-1 or activate our emergency medical services.”

It’s important to note that in most cases, heart disease is preventable when people adopt a healthy lifestyle, which includes not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, controlling blood sugar and cholesterol, treating high blood pressure, getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week and getting regular checkups.

Failing that, if we can recognize and address a potential heart attack early on, it can give people a second chance at improving their heart health without more serious consequences.

Sherry DeWalt is the healthy lifestyles coordinator for the CGH Health Foundation in Sterling.