Disease Prevention Article:

A little knowledge goes a long way in preventing heart attacks

by Pam McGaffin

The number one killer of Americans can strike suddenly or sneak up slowly.

Its victims often feel discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, as well as pain in one or both arms, the stomach, neck or jaw. The pain may be accompanied by nausea, lightheadedness and a cold sweat.

These are the "classic" signs of a heart attack.

Women, who have slightly different symptoms, can experience pain in the abdomen or lower back, or no pain at all, as well as unusual fatigue, sleeplessness, anxiety, dizziness and palpitations.

Knowing the warning signs of a heart attack can save lives. So can knowing how to prevent one in the first place, according to the Healthy Aging Partnership, a coalition of more than 30 Puget Sound-area organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of older adults.

Those most likely to suffer a heart attack are men over 45 and women over 55, as well as those who have a personal or family history of early heart disease - for example, a father or brother diagnosed before the age of 55.

While you can't stop the clock or change your family background, you can treat existing conditions and make lifestyle changes that will significantly lower your risk.

Here are some heart-healthy tips from HAP:

  • Stop smoking. One in five deaths from heart diseases is blamed on smoking.
  • Treat conditions that increase the likelihood of a heart attack. If you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes (high blood sugar), follow your doctor's advice for lowering or controlling it and take medications as directed.
  • Exercise regularly to strengthen your heart (which is a muscle) and your body. Experts recommend a total of 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. Choose something you enjoy and will stick with, such as walking, gardening or calisthenics while watching television. Talk to your doctor to come up with an exercise plan that will meet your needs.
  • Lose weight. Overweight and obese people are more likely to develop heart disease and suffer strokes. Excess body fat strains the heart, raises blood pressure and cholesterol, and can lead to diabetes.
  • Eat right. Follow the "food guide pyramid" that encourages five or more servings a day of fruits and vegetables; two to three servings of protein (including meat, fish, beans and eggs); two to three servings of dairy (including milk and yogurt); and six or more servings of grains, ideally whole-grains vs. refined (including bread, pasta and cereal). If six servings sounds like a lot, bear in mind these serving sizes usually are smaller than the portions you'd choose to eat. For example, two cups of spaghetti may be what you'd normally eat, but it equals about four servings from the grains group.
  • Eat less salt - less than 1 teaspoon (2,400 milligrams of sodium) a day.
  • Limit fatty foods, those that are high in saturated fat, trans fat and/or cholesterol, including full-fat dairy products, tropical oils, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and egg yolks.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Drink alcoholic beverages in moderation - no more than two glasses of beer or wine a day for men, one for women.

For more information on preventing heart attacks and other issues related to life as an older adult, call 1-844-348-KING (1-844-348-5464), a free and confidential help line. Or visit the HAP Web site at www.4elders.org.

HAP is supported by partner agencies, including Public Health Seattle & King County and the Comprehensive Health Education Foundation.