How to Survive a Heart Attack

You have gone through thousands of worst case scenarios over and over in your mind. But do you know the symptoms of a heart attack? Do you know what to do if you are having one? What about if you are alone? Do you know your risk factors for heart disease...

Editor's Note: Republishing this due to the number of officers we've seen die lately of heart attacks.  Pay attention.  Reduce your risk.

You think you are safety conscious: you wear your vest, you clean your weapons, you practice at the range, you wear your seatbelt, you train and train and train. You have gone through thousands of worst case scenarios over and over in your mind.  But do you know the symptoms of a heart attack?  Do you know what to do if you are having one?  What about if you are alone?  Do you know your risk factors for heart disease?  What is the smallest piece of safety equipment that you can carry capable of saving your life? 

There are two good reasons you should know the basic information about how to survive a heart attack. First, odds are very high that either you or someone you love will suffer from a heart attack during your lifetime.  In the United States alone, there are 1.2 million heart attacks per year, and about half of those are fatal (CDC).  Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the USA, and accounts for approximately 25% of all deaths.   On average, someone in the United States suffers a heart attack every 26 seconds and every minute someone dies of a heart attack. Secondly, whether you (or your loved one) survive that heart attack may depend on what you and your doctors do about it during the first few hours as well as over the long term.  For heart attack victims, every minute counts. Most people who die from a heart attack die within two hours of the first sign.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that the risk for cardiovascular disease is higher among law enforcement officers than it is for the rest of the population, According to the Officer Down Memorial Page there were 173 in the line of duty deaths last year.  The four leading causes of these deaths were:  gunfire (67); automobile accident (35), vehicular assault (12), and heart attack (11).  In fact these four types of deaths accounted for almost 75% of all of the line of duty deaths for law enforcement officers in the year 2011.  Thus far, 2012, there have been 6 heart attack deaths, accounting for 6½% of all duty deaths. 

What Is a Heart Attack?

The common name for a myocardial infarction (MI) is a heart attack.  Although the heart itself is full of blood; the heart muscle has its own specific veins and arteries to provide it with oxygenated blood. An infarction is caused by blockage of the heart's circulatory system due to an embolism usually made of plaque. Plaque is a combination of fatty acids and white blood cells that collect along the walls of arteries. Plaques restrict the flow of blood, and they reduce the elasticity of arterial walls (a process usually referred to as hardening of the arteries). When a piece of plaque breaks loose from an artery, it passes through the bloodstream until it lodges in a space through which it cannot fit.  The blocked blood vessel does not allow for a smooth flow of oxygenated blood. The portion of the heart muscle being supplied by the blocked artery then begins to die. It's the death of heart muscle that defines an MI.

Why Are the First Few Hours of a Heart Attack Critical?

Following a heart attack, most people can go into cardiac arrest immediately; or within the first several hours.  Cardiac arrest is the sudden, unexpected loss of heart function, breathing and consciousness occur within the first several hours following a MI.  CPR and/or the use of an automatic external defibrillator (shock) are the methods of choice for kick starting your heart again…but what if those methods are not available? Your chances of surviving cardiac arrest are exponentially greater if you are under medical care at an emergency treatment center following a MI.  Opening the blocked artery is of paramount importance. If treatment is given within three or four hours, much of the permanent muscle damage can be avoided. Delaying treatment by any longer significantly decreases the chances of heart muscle survival; after 12 hours the damage is usually irreversible.

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