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Illness prevention and treatment

October 27, 2017

Heart disease: Spotting the signs and reducing the risk

What exactly is heart disease? What’s the difference between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest? And how can you reduce your risk? Knowing the signs could save a life.

Quick: What disease do you fear most? Many of us would likely say “cancer.” And indeed, that’s the number-one cause of death in Canada. But don’t overlook your risk of heart disease, which accounts for the second-highest number of deaths in this country each year, according to Statistics Canada. (Stroke is the third-leading cause of death.)

“We are so afraid of getting cancer that we tend to overlook symptoms of heart disease,” says Dr. Susan Biali, a Vancouver-based physician. “We don’t tend to think of it as something to worry about.”

Yet, according to the Canadian government, more than 1.3 million Canadians have heart disease, and it’s one of the leading causes of death in Canada, claiming more than 66,000 lives per year.

Types of heart disease

Heart disease includes a long list of conditions. Four common ones are:

Angina. This happens when your heart doesn't get as much blood as it needs because of a blockage of one or more of the heart's arteries. It causes pain in the chest in the form of a squeezing, suffocating or burning feeling. Angina is not a heart attack; it’s a warning signal that you are at increased risk of a heart attack, cardiac arrest or sudden cardiac death.

Arrhythmia. A diagnosis of arrhythmia means you have an abnormal heart rhythm – either faster (tachycardia) or slower (bradycardia) than the typical 60-80 beats per minute. There are many types of arrhythmias. Some have no symptoms or warning signs, some are not very serious and others may be life threatening. Symptoms vary from person to person.

Heart attack. Not to be confused with cardiac arrest, a heart attack occurs when the blood supply to the heart is severely reduced or stopped because of a blockage. The narrowing of coronary arteries due to the buildup of plaque (a combination of cholesterol, fatty substances, cellular waste products, calcium and blood-clotting material) causes more than 90% of heart attacks. The length of time the blood supply is cut off will determine the amount of damage done to the heart.

Cardiac arrest. This is not the same thing as a heart attack, though the terms are often, and incorrectly, used interchangeably. A heart attack is a circulation problem; cardiac arrest is an “electrical” problem that occurs when the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops functioning. It can be caused by abnormal heart rhythms such as ventricular fibrillation, but can also be triggered by a variety of factors including coronary heart disease, a heart attack, congenital heart disease, electrocution or recreational drug use. Read more about the differences between heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest.

Heart attack warning signs

Heart attacks are particularly worrying, since thousands of Canadians die from them every year because they don't receive medical treatment quickly enough. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada urges you to call 911 (or your local emergency number) if you (or someone you’re with) are experiencing any of these typical warning signs, which may vary from person to person:

  • Chest discomfort (uncomfortable chest pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain, burning or heaviness)
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body (such as neck, jaw, shoulder, arms, back)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Light-headedness

Heart disease affects both men and women, but not always in the same way. According to a 2009 report by the Public Health Agency of Canada, Tracking Heart Disease and Stroke in Canada, “hospitalization and death rates for cardiovascular disease increase dramatically among men at age 45 and among women at age 55.” Female hormones offer some protection against heart disease, but that advantage disappears after menopause.

The signs of a heart attack may be less defined in women, says Dr. Biali. “For example, a woman may experience fatigue, difficulty sleeping, shortness of breath, chest tightness, burning in the chest that feels like heartburn, unusual anxiety, cold sweats or dizziness. And they can have these vague symptoms for up to a month before an actual heart attack.”

Heart attack risk factors

What puts you at risk for a heart attack? The Mayo Clinic cites, among others:

  • High cholesterol
  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • A family history of heart attack
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Tobacco use
  • Obesity
  • Stress

Most of these are factors you can control.

So, you know the drill: Start by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and cutting back on foods that offer little nutritional value. Exercise regularly, whether it’s a long daily walk or a fitness class three times a week. Don’t smoke. Reduce stress. And, what’s most important: Talk to your doctor about your risk of heart disease and what you can do to reduce it.

You may also be able to reduce your financial risk, should heart disease strike, with critical illness insurance, which can provide a lump-sum payment that can help you in your recovery from specified serious illnesses such as heart attack, cancer and stroke.

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