Comment: Underestimating the risks of heart attacks

A British Heart Foundation (BHF) survey of our supporters who have suffered a heart attack found that around half of them may be putting their life and future recovery in danger by delaying seeking medical help for their symptoms for more than an hour. Picture: TSPL
A British Heart Foundation (BHF) survey of our supporters who have suffered a heart attack found that around half of them may be putting their life and future recovery in danger by delaying seeking medical help for their symptoms for more than an hour. Picture: TSPL
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TOO many victims delay response too long, warns James Cant

As a nation we’re underestimating the life-threatening consequences of a heart attack, despite coronary heart disease – the main cause of heart attacks – remaining Scotland’s single biggest killer.

A British Heart Foundation (BHF) survey of our supporters who have suffered a heart attack found that around half of them may be putting their life and future recovery in danger by delaying seeking medical help for their symptoms for more than an hour.

We were shocked to learn that more than eight in ten of these heart attack survivors initially failed to realise that they may be having a heart attack, and that more than one in three mistook their symptoms for indigestion.

Worryingly, nearly two thirds still didn’t realise that they might be having a heart attack at the point they finally sought medical help.

The common perception is that a heart attack is sudden and dramatic, someone clutching their chest and keeling over. In reality, more than nine in ten of those surveyed remained conscious throughout.

Someone goes to hospital due to a heart attack around every 20 minutes in Scotland. A heart attack is caused when a blood clot forms in a narrowed coronary artery, cutting off the blood supply to the heart muscle.

Science has discovered that nearly half of potentially salvageable heart muscle is lost within one hour of the coronary artery being blocked. However, our survey shows that only around one in four heart attack survivors managed to get treatment within this timeframe, meaning that the majority put their lives and future recovery at risk.

We all need to be more aware of the signs and symptoms of heart attack. These vary, but the most common signs are:

• chest pain: tightness, heaviness, pain or a burning feeling in your chest

• pain in arms, neck, jaw, back or stomach: for some people, the pain or tightness is severe, while other people just feel uncomfortable

• sweating

• feeling light-headed

• becoming short of breath

• feeling nauseous or vomiting.

If you think you, or someone you’re with, could be having a heart attack, call 999 for an ambulance immediately.

The other thing that needs to happen is more research into the causes, diagnoses and treatments of a heart attack. Forty years ago heart attacks were poorly understood: there were no medicines to treat them and most victims lost their lives.

Thanks to modern treatments built on BHF-funded discoveries, around seven out of ten people now survive heart attack.

Thanks to science we’ve funded in Edinburgh, doctors are now able to use a more sensitive blood test to detect heart attack. This is a life saving development for women in particular, who tend to have lower levels of the protein that doctors are looking for, troponin, in their blood after heart attack. And using this test also means that heart attack can be ruled out in some cases, which means people can be discharged from hospital sooner, saving worry and NHS Scotland resources.

This is a huge leap forward, but we still need to discover ways of predicting when heart attacks will strike, because most occur without warning. We need to accelerate research into improving our understanding of the furring of the arteries that causes heart attacks and develop better ways of preventing them.

The BHF currently funds £29 million of research into finding new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat heart attacks. We’ve recently funded a project at Kings College London investigating a more effective way of diagnosing heart attacks.

The only way we can carry on funding such life saving research is through your fundraising, donations and legacies. We don’t receive any government funding.

• For more information about heart attacks or to support our life saving research visit: www.bhf.org.uk/doubtkills

• James Cant, director of British Heart Foundation Scotland