Most of the tips and advice we hear on how to reduce our risk of heart attack involves two key behaviors: Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. But what if you already live a fit and healthy lifestyle—does that mean you aren’t at risk for a heart attack?
Unfortunately, the answer is decidedly no. In fact, one cause of a heart attack is actually more frequently found in patients who not only don’t have any other risk factors, but are also otherwise young and healthy.
Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) refers to the spontaneous tearing in the coronary artery wall. This causes blood to become trapped between the layers of the artery wall, which leads to a bulging in the artery that blocks blood flow. When blood can’t reach the heart muscle, this can cause a heart attack.
While there is a great deal that doctors and researchers don’t know about SCAD—for instance, what causes it—there are some things we do know. And in this case, like so many other factors of your health, knowledge is power.
Eighty percent of SCAD patients are female and the average patient is in her early 40s. Patients are typically young to middle-aged women leading healthy and active lives. While there is no known cause, an estimated 30 percent of all SCAD patients have recently given birth.
If you’re hearing about SCAD for the first time, pay extra close attention: SCAD is believed to be a factor in up to 40 percent of heart attacks in women under the age of 50. Moreover, SCAD doesn’t produce any warning signs of its own—by the time you recognize the symptoms, you are likely already having a heart attack.
Knowing the symptoms of SCAD helps you to become aware you’re having a heart attack before it’s too late. Though SCAD can present differently in different patients, here are some of the warning signs to look out for:
For many women, chest pains may not even occur or be so minimal that concern of a heart attack doesn’t even cross their minds. For instance, in the case of this SCAD survivor, her “ashen” appearance was the deciding factor in what led her to go to the hospital.
It’s important for doctors to determine whether a heart attack was caused by SCAD because patients who have experienced one spontaneous artery tear are more likely to experience more. This also makes it even more important for SCAD patients to take steps to reduce any other heart disease risk factors, like high blood pressure, smoking or high cholesterol.
Talk to your doctor about your own risk factors and about the dangers of SCAD. And remember, if you think there’s a chance you’re experiencing SCAD, don’t hesitate—go to the hospital immediately. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Getting organized for your next doctor’s appointment? Download our free checklist: 20 Questions to Ask Your Cardiologist About Heart Attacks.