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Heart attack or cardiac arrest?

Deaths in the news highlight confusion over heart emergencies — and it’s important to know the difference
Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Actress Debbie Reynolds died just one day after losing her daughter, actress Carrie Fisher. Fisher's death was followed by contradictory reports about the cause.

Heart-related celebrity deaths felt at an all-time high in the last days of 2016 — Alan Thicke and George Michael, followed by Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds. As online speculation swirled about the causes of death, one thing became clear: there’s a lot of confusion when a heart-related death occurs.

For example, reports initially said Fisher became unresponsive on a flight and had a heart attack. Media later said she went into cardiac arrest or had a “cardiac episode.” Rolling Stone said she died of a “massive” heart attack. 

Though these terms may seem interchangeable, they’re not. Understanding the difference between a heart attack, cardiac arrest and heart failure is important for getting the right treatment, and potentially saving a life.

We asked Dr. Farhan Bhanji to explain the details. He’s an associate professor of pediatrics at McGill University’s faculty of medicine, works in pediatric critical care at the Montreal Children’s Hospital and represents Heart & Stroke on international resuscitation groups.

Heart attack

A heart attack is when the flow of blood to part of the heart muscle gets blocked. Without oxygen, that section of the heart begins to die. Depending on how long blood is cut off, the results can be mild damage, or it could be massive — even fatal.

Dr. Bhanji says the earlier you identify a heart attack, the better a person’s chance for survival.

“If someone is having chest pains, is sweating, has pain radiating to the shoulder, the arm, the jaw, or looks uncomfortable, you need to get them to the hospital as soon as possible.”

Learn more about heart attack and what to do.

Cardiac arrest

A cardiac arrest is when the heart stops beating and no blood is flowing to deliver oxygen to the body’s organs. It can happen to anyone for a variety of reasons, including a heart attack. This is a medical emergency that requires immediate action: call 9-1-1, perform CPR and use an AED (automated external defibrillator) if available until emergency help arrives.

“For all intents and purposes, that person is dead at that point, and if you don’t act they will not survive,” says Dr. Bhanji. “If you do act, you can double their chances of survival.”  

It is estimated that fewer than 10% of Canadians who have an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest survive to go home to their families. 

“Most of the cardiac arrests that happen are in a home setting or environment where if there’s anyone around, it’s going to be your loved one,” says Dr. Bhanji.  

Learn more about cardiac arrest and how to respond.

Heart failure

Heart failure is a condition where the heart is weakened or damaged and cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to the body. It can be caused by many things, but most commonly it develops as a result of damage from a heart attack or high blood pressure (hypertension).

Someone with heart failure may feel shortness of breath, tiredness, swelling in the feet and ankles and bloating. There is no cure for heart failure but early diagnosis, lifestyle changes and appropriate drug treatments can help you maintain a normal, active life.

Learn more about heart failure and how to manage it.

Learn CPR today

At its most basic, CPR is as simple as pushing hard and fast on the centre of the person’s chest (think to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive”). However, taking a course helps you practice and remember what to do.

Dr. Bhanji says it is everyone’s responsibility to learn CPR so that we are prepared for any heart related emergency.

“It’s a really scary moment, but we need to be able to act on these things and the best way to be able to do this is to take a CPR course with Heart & Stroke, or even practicing while you watch a video.” 

Find a CPR course near you. 

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