Medical emergencies, like a heart attack or stroke, often occur without warning – and treatment often arrives too late. Here’s how to tell if you’re at risk and what to do when it strikes. By Sasha Gonzales.
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Cardiovascular disease, or diseases involving the heart or blood vessels like a heart attack or stroke, accounted for 29.5 per cent of all deaths in 2013, according to the Ministry of Health Singapore. But do you know the difference?
In stroke, the disease arises in the arteries supplying blood to the brain and may be referred to as a “brain attack”, says Dr Cheryl Kam, a family doctor at Complete Health International. A heart attack, on the other hand, is a disease in the arteries of the heart. Both conditions can strike at the same time, but this rarely happens. A “brain attack” or stroke may be triggered during a severe heart attack when the heart does not pump enough blood to the brain. An irregular heart rhythm during a heart attack may also lead to the formation of clots that break off, travel towards the brain and subsequently cause a stroke.
A stroke occurs when blood flow to a part of the brain stops. This disruption may be caused by a bleed from a blood vessel (haemorrhagic stroke) or a blockage within the blood vessel (ischaemic stroke).
According to Dr Kam, the latter is more common: “70 per cent of strokes are caused by emboli (fatty deposits) that have broken off from fatty plaque elsewhere in the circulatory system such as the neck arteries. When the emboli travel and become lodged in smaller vessels, they block the blood supply to that area of the brain.”
Stroke symptoms The sudden onset of numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body; confusion, trouble speaking or understanding; severe headache with no known cause; trouble seeing in one or both eyes; and dizziness, difficulty walking, as well as loss of balance or coordination.
Risk factors for stroke The odds are stacked against you if you have certain lifestyle habits and medical conditions. Controllable risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity and physical inactivity, says Dr Kam.
Uncontrollable causes include age, gender, ethnicity, family history, previous stroke, and certain heart conditions such as patent foramen ovale or PFO (hole in the heart).
What to do if you suspect you or someone has a stroke Call 995 immediately if you experience any of the symptoms above. Do also note the time of the first symptom. This information is important to your healthcare provider and can affect treatment decisions.
This happens when blood flow to your heart is suddenly blocked, causing serious damage or death to that part of the artery. Blockage is usually caused by a blood clot.
Heart attack symptoms Sudden and severe chest pain that can radiate to the jaw, neck, arms and back; shortness of breath; and light-headedness or weakness. Sufferers may also break out in a cold sweat.
Risk factors for heart attack Dr Goh Ping Ping, a consultant cardiologist and echocardiologist at the Cardiac Specialist Centre, says that high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking, stress and a sedentary lifestyle, as well as a family history of heart disease are strong risk factors for a heart attack. Most attacks are preventable, Dr Kam adds. Ask your family doctor about how you can minimise your chances of having a heart attack.
What to do if you suspect you or someone a heart attack Call for an ambulance immediately. If possible, get help from someone who knows how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) while waiting for it. Dr Kam says that if you feel chest pain and suspect that you are suffering a heart attack, take an aspirin even before you get to the hospital. The aspirin will thin the blood and prevent further clot formation. Your family doctor will be able to advise the correct dosage.