Heart awareness can save lives, experts agree

Valentine's Day draws near, but candy and chocolate hearts shouldn't be the only hearts on people's minds.

February marks American Heart Month and is an important time to remember that cardiovascular diseases, including strokes, are the No. 1 killers in the U.S. People of all ages and both genders are susceptible.

Knowing the symptoms and what to do are among the most important factors in determining life or death, according to experts.

Heart attack and stroke victims can benefit from new medications and treatments. Clot-busting drugs can stop some heart attacks and strokes in progress, reducing disability and saving lives.

But to be effective, such drugs must be given relatively quickly after heart attack or stroke symptoms appear.

The American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute have launched a new "Act in Time" campaign to increase awareness of heart attack symptoms and the importance of calling 9-1-1 immediately.

Heart attack

warning signs

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense - often referred to as a "movie" heart attack where nobody doubts what's happening.

In reality, the majority of heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. People aren't always aware of what's wrong and wait too long before getting help.

Signs that a heart attack is in progress, according to the American Heart Association, include:

_ Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.

_ Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

_ Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort

__ Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or light-headedness

Men and women's most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea and/or vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

Learn the signs but even if you're not sure it's a heart attack, consult with a doctor about your symptoms.

Stroke and cardiac

arrest warning signs

The American Stroke Association lists the following as warning signs of stroke:

_ Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body

_ Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding

_ Sudden trouble seeing with one or both eyes

_ Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination

_ Sudden, severe headache with no known cause

If you or someone else has one or more of these signs, call 9-1-1.

Cardiac arrest strikes immediately and unexpectedly. Warning signs include:

_ Sudden loss of responsiveness (no response to tapping on shoulders).

_ No normal breathing (the victim does not take a normal breath when you tilt the head up and check for at least five seconds).

If signs of cardiac arrest are present, tell someone to call 9-1-1, get an automated external defibrillator (if one is available) and begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation immediately.

Remember: Every second matters and fast action can save lives.

Ashley Miller can be reached at

Fast facts

According to the American Heart Association:

_ About 700,000 people suffer a new or recurrent stroke in the United States each year. More than 150,000 of these people die, making stroke the third-leading cause of death.

_ About 5.7 million U.S. stroke survivors are alive today, many with permanent stroke-related disabilities.

_ Women account for about six in 10 stroke deaths.

_ Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999-2004 shows 72 million high adults 20 and older in the U.S. have high blood pressure.

_ Up to 95 percent of high blood pressure cases are from unknown causes, but it is easily detectable and usually controlled with proper treatment.

_ An estimated 25.1 million men and 20.9 million women put themselves at increased risk of heart attack and stroke by smoking cigarettes.

_ About 36.6 million American adults have cholesterol levels of 240 milligrams per deciliters or higher - the point at which it becomes a major risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke.

_ About 66 percent of Americans age 20 and older are overweight or obese.

_ Data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that only 30 percent of American adults engage in light-moderate physical activity for at least 30 minutes five or more days a week or vigorous physical activity for at least 20 minutes three or more days a week.

_ At least 65 percent of people with diabetes die of some form of heart disease or blood vessel disease.

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