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Make a heart attack action plan

While it may not be pleasant to think about, planning what to do in the event of a heart attack could prove to be a lifesaving move.

"You don't want to go through life thinking you're going to have a heart attack," says Gerald Fletcher, MD, an American Heart Association (AHA) volunteer expert. "But if you are at high risk for a heart attack, then you should be aware that you could have a problem."

Who's at risk?

A heart attack can happen at any age, but the risk for heart disease increases for men after age 45 and for women after age 55 (or after menopause). In addition to age, other factors that increase the risk of heart attack include:

  • A previous heart attack.
  • Family history of early heart disease.
  • High blood sugar due to diabetes or insulin resistance.
  • An unhealthy diet (for example, a diet high in saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars, and sodium).
  • High blood pressure.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Smoking.
  • Being overweight.
  • Physical inactivity.

If you have one or more risk factors, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) says you should visit your doctor to find out how to reduce your risk for heart attack.

Recognize the warning signs

In the movies, heart attack victims often clutch their chest in pain and keel over. But in reality, most heart attacks start slowly as mild pain or discomfort.

It's important to recognize the signs of a heart attack. According to the NHLBI, they include:

  • Discomfort in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes or comes and goes. The discomfort may feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Unexplained pain or discomfort in other body parts, such as your back, arms, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath that accompanies or precedes the chest discomfort.
  • A cold sweat, nausea or light-headedness that accompanies chest discomfort.

If you experience any of these symptoms or think you may be having a heart attack, call 911 immediately.

During a heart attack, a blockage cuts off the flow of blood to your heart. The longer you delay medical attention, the greater the damage to your heart muscle.

Plan ahead

If you are at high risk, it's a good idea to plan now what you would do if you had a heart attack.

"You don't need to be obsessed with it, but you do need to be aware," Dr. Fletcher says. "There's a lot we can do nowadays to save lives."

Along with learning the heart attack warning signs, the NHLBI says you should:

  • Talk to your doctor about your risk and learn what you can do to reduce it.
  • Decide what you would do at home, work or other places if you had heart attack symptoms.
  • Figure out who would care for your kids or other dependents in an emergency.
  • Talk with your family and friends about heart attack warning signs.

reviewed 5/10/2019

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