Preventing heart attacks

HANCOCK – There’s no doubt that one of the most important muscles in the body, if not the most important, is the heart, but sometimes not enough care is taken in order to maximize life span and keep healthy.

Greg Scharf is an exercise physiologist at Portage Health and knows how to lower one’s chances of having a heart attack. One way is to make sure to avoid or change lifestyle habits that lead to a heart attack.

Scharf said a heart attack can occur when there’s a blockage in a coronary artery that causes a lack of blood supply or oxygen to a specific area of a heart, causing tissue damage.

“The reasons for that is weight, waist circumference, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and smoking,” Scharf said.

Body mass index is another contributing factor.

Scharf said that cardiac muscle, unlike other muscles, like a bicep, is very reluctant to regenerate.

“If you have a 10 percent loss of cardiac muscle, the rest of your life you have to function with the 90 percent,” he said. “That’s why heart health is so important, because once you lose it, it tends to be quite a substantial issue to get that back.”

But sometimes heart attacks can happen even when one doesn’t engage in risky behavior such as smoking or if they are not obese.

According to Scharf, genetics does play a role in the risk factor for heart attacks and having a blockage may not be the cause of it.

“It may be an electrical issue with the heart,” he said. “The heart goes into a lethal arrhythmia and it really has nothing to do with blockages, it’s just kind of a cardiac anomaly.”

For marathon runners or athletes, that added stress on the heart causes it to misfire electronically. The heart fires at a rate where it’s not pumping efficiently anymore.

Scharf said that’s why Automated Electronic Defibrillators are so important because that’s what’s used to attempt to electronically shock the heart back into a normal electrical pattern.

But Scharf said a lot of times those incidences don’t relate to high risk factor patients who may have blockages. But with blockages, there are more signs that allow doctors to diagnose the problem.

“(Blockages) are things we can test for and see and prevent a little bit better than those electrical issues,” he said.

Prior to a heart attack, some people can display symptoms years before the actual attack occurs.

“Depending on the situation, a lot of (people) will look back and think about things changing and it will be over a course of a year to two years,” he said. “Things progressively got worse.”

Scharf said when people think of the symptoms for heart attacks they think of heavy chest pains, sweating, left-sided numbness, left-sided tingling or jaw pain.

“A lot of the time when we see patients in cardiac rehab, I’d say less than 10 percent of them had (those) distinguished symptoms,” Scharf said.

One symptom may be becoming fatigued easier while doing normal, house hold things.

“A lot of time people chalk that up to, ‘I’m getting old,'” he said. “If you notice substantial changes in what you physically can do, it may not necessarily be just because of age.”

After having a heart attack, most people can return to a decent level of function, but the determining factor is the severity and location of the attack.

“Some people have lifelong issues and never return back to normal function,” he said. “Some had minimal damage to the heart and was not in a significant location.”

A significant location for a heart attack would occur on the upper left side of the heart.

Gordy Schaaf has been attending cardiac rehabilitation sessions at Portage Health twice a week for the past 16 months after having a stent put in his heart.

“I came here to strengthen the muscles around my heart and get in shape,” he said. “I’ve lost 60 pounds.”

Schaaf said that he doesn’t see a time when he’ll have to stop going.

“Unless I get sick of these people, I’ll probably be here the rest of my life,” he joked.

Schaaf now eats whole grain bread and turkey bacon and has cut out sausage. Reports from his physician have also been getting better each month.

He also has one more thing that helps him.

“Very positive,” he said.