Each year, heart attacks claim the lives of 16,000 people across the nation, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

Know your risk

Heart attacks are complicated and combine multiple aspects of who you are and how you live. “There are certain [risk factors] that can’t be changed and certain ones that can be, you have to look at them all,” explains Barbara Kennedy, the executive director of the Cardiac Health Foundation of Canada. “They all interact.” Inherent risks that can increase the chance of suffering a heart attack include family history or advanced age. However, factors like smoking, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and stress can be controlled or treated to lower the risk to the heart. Though heart attacks are often considered to be a concern for the unhealthy or elderly, cardiologist Dr. Robert Welsh says that is a misperception.  “I think we all live in a little bit of denial, but if you look hard at yourself or at people around you, there are very few people who have none of the classic risk factors for heart attack,” he says. “Everyone should be cautious of their risk.”

Act quickly

A heart attack occurs when one of the arteries that supply blood to the heart becomes blocked, stopping the flow of oxygen and nutrients. When this happens – prompting signs such as chest discomfort, nausea, or shortness of breath – time is of the essence.  

“Everyone should be cautious of their risk.”

“The symptoms of a heart attack aren’t always devastating and catastrophic,” says Welsh, explaining that some signs can be easily misunderstood as indigestion or other minor health issues. “People don’t think the problem is as serious as it is until they start to get really unwell from it.”

Without prompt treatment, heart attacks can be fatal. Even if a patient lives, delaying medical attention can injure the heart, causing life-long complications.

“The long-term risk is that if you weaken the heart muscle, then you’re both exposed to congestive heart failure – where you have lack of energy, shortness of breath on exertion, inability to live a high quality of life due to limited heart function – and abnormal heart rhythms because the more damage you have to your heart, the more scarring you have and the more at risk you are of lethal heart rhythms,” explains Welsh.

If a patient experiences a heart attack and the arteries are completely blocked, Welsh estimates that they have between three to six hours to get medical therapy otherwise permanent damage can be caused. His advice: as soon as you spot symptoms, call 911. “By activating the system, you greatly reduce your risk of death and disability,” he says.

Stay healthy

Kennedy advises Canadians to know their risk factors for a heart attack by talking to their healthcare professional. Though some factors are beyond a patient’s control, others can be improved through diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes.

“To us, exercise is medicine,” says Kennedy, adding that this applies to people of all ages.