Almost 16,000 Canadians die each year as the result of a heart attack, according to Statistics Canada, 2012.

Immediate and long-term complications

Recognizing the warning signs of a heart attack is critical. Delay and denial can result in the permanent loss of heart muscle. “The problem only gets worse when you don’t call 911,” said Dr. Alan Bell MD, assistant professor in the department of Family/Community Medicine, University of Toronto.

"Anyone can have a heart attack, we are showing Canadians how to recognize the signs and how to look after their health."

Complications of a heart attack are considered as either immediate or long term. In the first instance, the most serious complication is arrhythmia, where the heart goes into an abnormal beating pattern that may not be effective in pumping blood. Amongst the most feared is ventricular fibrillation, as this often leads to sudden cardiac death.

In the long term, the loss of heart muscle makes it a less effective pump, leading to the condition of heart failure.  In this situation fluid “backs up” in the lungs leading to shortness of breath or in severe cases pulmonary edema.

Male and female symptoms of heart attacks

Most Canadians are aware of at least the basic heart attack symptoms. These include crushing, squeezing pressure in the chest, often with a bias to the left side. This discomfort and pain may well be accompanied by pressure or pain in the jaw, upper back, arms, neck or shoulders, including difficulty breathing, clamminess, sweating, heart flutters, paleness and feelings of anxiety.

While chest pain is the most common symptom in both sexes, women experience different ones. These might include extreme fatigue that gets worse with activity, shortness of breath with or without chest pain, heartburn/nausea and/or vomiting unrelieved by antacids, and a pain in the chest that may extend into the neck, jaws and shoulders.

Risk factors of heart attacks

Risk factors which can’t be changed and may contribute to heart attacks include a family history of heart disease, gender and aging.  Risk factors that can be changed include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes and obesity.

“We now know that sitting all day at work, in front of a computer, without activity can be bad for your health,” said John Sawdon, executive director of the Heart Wise Exercise program at the Cardiac Health Foundation of Canada. It’s now being equated to smoking over a pack of cigarettes per day, he said.

Fighting heart attacks

“Anyone can have a heart attack, we are showing Canadians how to recognize the signs and how to look after their health,” said Barbara Kennedy, Executive Director of the Cardiac Health Foundation of Canada. “Our goal is to continue educating the public and to take actions if you think they are having a heart attack.”