The human body is truly miraculous. Trillions of cells, each with a specific purpose, function like tiny cities, performing millions—even billions of processes at any given time. Each cell contains components uniquely serving as production factories, transportation and information systems, energy power plants, and so on. So what’s at the very heart of all this? Well it’s the most important unpaired organ of course—the human heart. (Yea, yea, yea…the brain’s important too!)
With a design so intricate and efficient, the heart beats an estimated two billion times over the course of a human life. It pumps about six liters of blood per minute (that’s three large soda bottles!) while generating pressures that would squirt blood across a room (never a good sign). We’re seldom aware that “the old ticker” is putting in such efforts; however, awareness is often the key to prevention and heart health.
Many people quickly seek medical attention after becoming acutely aware of a cardiac condition, and we live in an amazing time where technology allows for prompt diagnosis and successful treatment of heart attacks. Unfortunately, many people passively sit idle, waiting for symptoms to subside, often attributing warning signs to other conditions. Denial results in irreversible heart damage or even death in the case of a heart attack. I often tell my patients, “I’d rather you get checked out for nothing, than stay home with something.”
Lack of blood flow to the heart results in ischemia, producing chest pain called angina. Angina can vary in quality and character, but is typically described as a pressure-like sensation, as if “something is sitting on my chest.” It can be associated with sweating and shortness of breath. Pain radiating to, or occurring only in, the arms, back, neck or jaw can represent angina and should be evaluated. Angina can mimic heartburn, but it is unaffected by antacid treatment. Women often experience cardiac events differently than men and may complain of vague symptoms such as nausea, shortness of breath or fatigue.
A person experiencing signs or symptoms of a heart attack should call 911. Survival chances increase once a patient comes into contact with medical personnel.
Screening for heart disease should be performed at age 50—and even earlier for those with a family history. Americans are much more likely to die of a heart attack than they are to die from colon, breast and prostate cancer combined. And many are regularly screened for those diseases, but not for heart disease.