Many people mistakenly assume cardiac arrest and heart attack are the same thing. However, sudden cardiac arrest is not a heart attack. In fact, there are distinguishable differences between the two that are best explained by detailing what is actually happening when someone is suffering from either one.
What happens during a heart attack?
During a coronary attack, or heart attack, blockage occurs in one or more of the heart's arteries. That blockage subsequently prevents the heart from receiving enough oxygen-rich blood.
According to the American Heart Association's Web site www.heart.org, the buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances create plaque in the arteries, making blood flow slower.
"When a plaque in a heart artery breaks, a blood clot forms around the plaque," states the site. "This blood clot can block the artery and shut off blood flow to the heart muscle. When the heart muscle is starved for oxygen and nutrients, it is called ischemia."
When damage to the heart muscle happens from ischemia, that is when a heart attack can occur.
Research indicates many people with symptoms of a heart attack actually delay seeking treatment for more than two hours.
In a 2010 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers found the average delay in arriving at the hospital after the start of a heart attack was roughly two and a half hours. Eleven percent of the more than 100,000 cases examined in the study waited more than 12 hours from the start of symptoms before seeking treatment. Those symptoms can include chest discomfort, shortness of breath and discomfort in other areas of the body that do no improve after five minutes.
What happens during cardiac arrest?
When a person is experiencing cardiac arrest, their heart's electrical system is malfunctioning and suddenly becomes irregular. The heart begins to beat very fast while the ventricles may flutter or quiver. Blood is not being delivered to the body during cardiac arrest, and a genuine fear is that blood flow to the brain will be reduced so drastically a person may lose consciousness.
Unlike a heart attack, cardiac arrest requires immediate treatment. It's best to seek treatment promptly for both a heart attack and cardiac arrest, but those experiencing cardiac arrest are at much greater risk of death if treatment is not sought immediately.
According to AHA, the most common arrhythmia, or irregular heart rhythm, is known as ventricular fibrillation - when the heart's lower chambers start to be chaotically and stop pumping blood.
"Death occurs within minutes after the heart stops," according to www.heart.org. "Cardiac arrest may be reversed if [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] is performed and a defibrillator is used to shock the heart and restore a normal heart rhythm within a few minutes."
Men and women, young and old, should also keep in mind that heart attack can sometimes lead into cardiac arrest, highlighting the importance of seeking treatment as soon as any symptoms of heart attack begin to appear.
How to prevent heart attack, cardiac arrest
The goal is to keep blood flowing through the body as smoothly as possible. This means avoiding blood clots and the build-up of plaque in the arteries. That might sound simple enough, but plaque build-up and the process of coronary artery disease has been shown to begin as far back as childhood, when diets are not typically tailored to avoid heart disease.
While it's impossible to go back in time and change certain lifestyle habits, including diet and exercise routines and regimens, there are ways adults can reduce the build-up of plaque, which can help them avoid falling victim to heart attack and cardiac arrest.
• Exercise regularly. At least 30 minutes of daily exercise is recommended.
• Eat a healthy diet. A diet low in saturated fat, which almost always equates to eating less red meat, and high in fruits and vegetables is ideal.
• Stop smoking. For those who have never smoked or have quit smoking, keep it up. Those who have or continue to smoke, stop.
• Don't procrastinate. These changes can't wait until tomorrow. The process or coronary artery disease doesn't wait for adulthood, and adults who need to make changes cannot afford to drag their feet. The good news is studies have indicated even those with heart disease can expect to live longer if they simply commit to the necessary lifestyle changes.
According to Katherine McCarthy, American Heart Association's senior regional director, communications, people should also take the time to learn CPR. "Since cardiac arrest can happen anytime, anywhere, it's imperative that people learn CPR," she said. "Recent updates to guidelines advise 'hands only' should someone collapse, without doing breaths. This means pushing hard and fast in the middle of the person's chest, to the beat of 'Staying Alive,' 100 beats per minute."
For more information about heart attack and cardiac arrest, visit the American Heart Association Web site at www.heart.org.
Editor Sarah L. Cronk contributed to this report.