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Having A Heart Attack?  Act In Time!

It's hard to believe, but most Americans do not call 9-1-1, their doctors or their hospital quickly enough when they're experiencing classic symptoms of a heart attack.  For this reason, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and the American Heart Association (AHA) have issued a joint call to action to educate women and men about the signs and symptoms of heart attacks and what to do immediately.  Ironically, despite tremendous life-saving advances in the treatment of heart attack, only a small percentage of patients are getting to the hospital early enough to reap the benefits of that therapy.  How important is this?  Delay in seeking medical treatment is a key factor in the nearly one-half million heart attack deaths in the U.S. each year.

To combat this, the NHLBI and the AHA have launched a major new heart attack education campaign called Act in Time to Heart Attack Signs. Act in Time targets patients and the general public as well as physicians and seeks to raise awareness about the need for a fast response. "Our goal is to save lives by increasing the woefully low number of heart attack patients who are treated within the first hour of experiencing symptoms," says Claude Lenfant MD, Director of the NHLBI. "It is during that crucial 60-minute window that clot-busting medication and other treatments are most effective. Alarmingly, only 1 in 5 patients gets to the hospital emergency department soon enough to benefit from these treatments.

Most potential heart attack victims wait at least two to four hours before seeking medical help once they have symptoms of a heart attack.  How can this be?  The main reason is that most people with heart attacks do not have what has been called a "Hollywood heart attack" in which crushing chest pain and shortness of breath come in response to some major stressor.  On the contrary, many heart attacks-especially in women or adults with diabetes--are much 'quieter,' causing only mild pain or discomfort. In addition to uncertainty about symptoms, many patients fear they will be embarrassed if their symptoms turn out to be a false alarm. In addition, the majority of women still view heart attacks as a 'male' problem even though cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of both men and women.

The most common heart attack warning signs are chest pain or discomfort; discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach; shortness of breath; breaking out in a cold sweat; nausea; and light-headedness.  While a heart attack could potentially affect anyone, the classic risk factors include having had a previous heart attack; a personal or family history of cardiovascular disease; high blood pressure; elevated cholesterol; smoking; sedentary lifestyle; diabetes; age over 50 for men; and menopausal for women.

Calling 9-1-1 can increase heart attack survival not only by getting patients to the hospital faster, but also because emergency medical personnel can give a variety of medications and treatments even before arrival at the hospital.  Even something as simple as taking an aspirin at the first sign of a heart attack can improve survival rates significantly. 

The Act in Time campaign provides various educational materials for health care providers, heart attack patients and the public including a booklet, an educational video, and new Web pages, which can be reached through the NHLBI Web site: www.nhlbi.nih.gov.

Created: 10/14/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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