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Assessing Your Risk and Knowing the Signs of a Heart Attack

Recognizing the signs of a heart attack and getting medical attention quickly following an attack can be critical to your health. Almost one in every four deaths — some 600,000 each year — is caused by heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it the leading cause of death in the United States.

Family History

Family history plays a significant role in your heart disease risk. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, you’re at the greatest genetic risk if an immediate male family member was diagnosed with heart disease before turning 55 or if a female family member was diagnosed before age 65. Other risk factors for heart attacks also have genetic links, according the U.S. Health and Human Services Million Hearts campaign. These include obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Even lifestyle factors tend to cluster in families, meaning that unhealthy diets, lack of physical activity, smoking, and alcohol abuse can all be learned from parents and passed down to the next generation.

Signs of a Heart Attack

If you have a family history of heart disease or other risk factors, it’s a good idea to learn how to spot the signs of a heart attack. The American Heart Association offers a list that includes:

  • Chest pain and discomfort: This usually occurs near the center of the chest or on the left side. It can feel like pressure, fullness, pressure, sharp pain, or even a dull aching. It may go away and come back.    
  • Upper body pain and discomfort: The pain in the chest can sometimes be accompanied, and even overshadowed, by pain in other areas. It’s common to feel pain in your shoulders, arms, neck, back, and jaw during a heart attack.      
  • Shortness of breath: Feeling like you can’t catch your breath is another sign of a heart attack. This can seem related to the pain in your chest, or it can occur separately.      
  • Other signs: Some people show other signs of a heart attack — they may break out in a cold sweat, develop nausea, or feel dizzy and faint.

The most common signs of a heart attack are pain and discomfort in the chest. This is true for women and men, although women are more likely to experience a wider range of symptoms than men. It’s common for women to experience all the symptoms on this list, while men can only have pain.

Lowering Your Risk

A good way to start the process of safeguarding your health is to talk to your doctor about your risk factors. You may be able to lower your risk by making positive lifestyle changes, maintaining a healthy weight, and treating high blood pressure or cholesterol. These changes may also help you avoid many other health concerns as you age. If you have heart disease or have a family history of heart attacks or strokes, you may want to consider investing in a medical alert system. For high-risk seniors, medical alert devices provide access to help with a single push of a medical alert help button. First responders can arrive within minutes and can begin treatment swiftly.

It’s important to do what you can to reduce your risk of heart disease, learn how to recognize the signs of a heart attack and get checked out by a medical professional any time you experience any of the symptoms. If it is a heart attack, getting medical attention quickly could save your life.