February has been deemed American Heart Month by The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, aiming to highlight the importance of heart health for everyone in America. Some of the topics emphasized include managing stress, eating well, learning about how our heart works, and different heart health risks are all a primary focus of the organization.
The younger crowd may not think too often about their heart health, as it’s often associated with older age, however, a variety of conditions could affect your heart at any given time. Some of these include hypertension or even palpitations, encouraging the vast majority of people to up their game when it comes to knowing how to prevent these issues.
As one ages, the risk of heart attack becomes more and more pressing. These worries aren’t without warrant either. In the United States alone, 735,000 people suffer a heart attack each year, with roughly 610,000 people dying from heart disease. These numbers may not sound high, but they equate to approximately 1 in 4 deaths annually.
While heart attacks typically affect people with pre-existing health concerns, there’s a relatively unknown condition that physicians are seeing occur more and more often. Called spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, it’s a heart issue that often comes without warning and can affect young women in particular. Let’s take a deeper look at SCAD and what you need to know—after all, what better time is there to brush up on your heart health than during American Heart Month?
Heart Attacks vs SCAD
Long considered to be an “old man’s condition,” heart attacks can range in severity and are typically caused due to a pre-existing medical issue. Instances of high blood pressure or high cholesterol can lead to slow hardening of the arteries, the main pathways that blood uses to get to and from the heart. When a blockage occurs in one of the arteries, it causes a heart attack. Symptoms can vary from person to person, but a tightening in the chest is one of the most telltale signs.
In recent years, there’s been a push from medical providers to educate people on the heart attack symptoms that women may encounter, as they can differ from those seen in men. Often times women don’t experience such a dramatic sensation of pressure in their chest, and instead may notice a sharp pain running down one or both arms, or even discomfort in their jaw, neck, or back. Depending on one’s overall health, a heart attack may appear symptomatically more like a case of the flu, rather than a serious medical event.
When one’s attention turns toward heart attacks, the above symptoms and concerns are typically present, yet many don’t realize that other issues could arise. Instead of a reaction to a clogged artery, SCAD is a very different issue. Its cause is still undetermined, but a heart attack that follows a spontaneous coronary artery dissection can be just as deadly. In these instances, a tear happens within the artery, causing blood to seep between its layers. This could cause the tear to lengthen or lead to a clot, both of which can trigger a heart attack.
Relevant Risk Factors
Most people are aware of the common behaviors that can increase the chances of a heart attack, most of them tend to linked to generally poor health. Those who may suffer, or are more likely to suffer, from coronary disease typically meet some of the following criteria:
- Those with obesity and diabetes
- Men over the age of 45 and women over 55
- High blood pressure and high cholesterol
- Stress or a lack of physical activity
Again, most of this information is common knowledge, but when dealing with SCAD, the risk factors are far from typical. Many patients who experience this type of heart attack are in very good health, sometimes making it difficult to even diagnose the issue. In a majority of cases, individuals who present with SCAD may be:
- Female, as this type of heart attack is rarer in men
- Pregnant or have recently given birth—up to one-third of SCAD cases occur during this time
- Individuals who undergo extreme exercise
- Those who have fibromuscular dysplasia or lupus, conditions that can affect arteries and blood vessels
- Struggling with high blood pressure
Although it’s still considered a heart attack, as the end result is essentially blood not reaching the heart, spontaneous coronary artery dissection is nearly in a class all its own. People don’t have to present with any of the above risk factors in order for SCAD to occur, making it a condition that’s difficult to diagnose and even harder to prevent.
Young Women And SCAD
Changing the perception of who can be affected by a heart attack is just one of the many ways that the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute is working toward greater awareness around heart health, yet SCAD still remains a rather unknown condition. Medical experts estimate that even though it’s a fairly rare type of heart issue, nearly 40% of all heart attacks in women under the age of 50 are from a spontaneous coronary artery dissection. What’s more, over 90% of SCAD patients are female.
Anecdotes around SCAD are shocking, as women can end up with serious and permanent heart issues if doctors do not diagnose symptoms correctly. One such story details a woman who, at 42, was a healthy individual who loved to run. She awoke one night with pain shooting down her arm, and despite having multiple tests done at the emergency room, she was diagnosed with anxiety and gastric reflux. Her arm pain continued, and her primary care physician said she had shingles, despite not having a rash.
Eventually, after seeing a physician who was willing to perform an EKG, it was uncovered that she had a SCAD heart attack and was still suffering heart issues five days after the fact. Since her heart wasn’t receiving blood as it should, she sustained permanent damage and now has to take regular medication and avoid strenuous activity as a result. It’s this woman’s belief that if she had presented the same symptoms yet was an older man, her heart attack would have been diagnosed right away. It’s hard to argue her point—and adds even more to the fact that SCAD is severely under the radar for the general public.
Life After SCAD
Recovery from a heart attack often includes rest and reevaluating one’s lifestyle; dealing with a spontaneous coronary artery dissection includes a similar set of instructions. SCAD may or may not be life-threatening depending on the severity of the artery tear, but like many other bodily injuries, it will heal with time. Most patients find that they’re told to reduce their stress levels, engage in a healthier lifestyle, and above all else, listen to their bodies. Cardiac rehabilitation may be required if recommended by your physician.
Unfortunately, SCAD can happen more than once, particularly because the risk factors and reasons behind this issue are still largely vague. Prevention, too, is difficult to pinpoint, as men and women who are young and healthy are still at risk. Taking a more active role in your own health and well-being, including eating a balanced diet, exercising, and reducing stress, can all help in preventing a heart attack, along with a host of other medical issues.
Remember that you are the best barometer for when something in your body isn’t quite right. While the symptoms of a heart attack and SCAD are very similar, some people don’t feel them quite as intensely as others. It’s crucial that you stay in tune with what feels normal for your body and visit your primary care physician if you experience anything out of the ordinary. More severe symptoms should prompt an ER visit right away.
American Heart Month
During the month of February, why not take some time to evaluate your overall lifestyle and see where you could make small changes in an effort to reduce your risk of SCAD? Things like meditation or getting more sleep each night can help to lower stress levels, while eating a balanced diet can help to fend off high blood pressure.
If you’d like to help the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute with their cause, consider talking with a friend or family member about SCAD. Women under the age of 50, in particular, should be aware of this condition, what its symptoms entail, and how they can get help when needed. Keeping a mindful attitude toward heart health should happen all year long, so let February be the time to get started!
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