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Heart Attacks Are Like Multi-Car Pileups: More Risks Mean More Problems

January 11, 2017
Traffic on highway

The more risks you take, the more likely you are to have a problem.

Imagine your arteries are roads, and your red blood cells are cars. This is the analogy Dr. Quinn Pack, a cardiologist with the Baystate Heart & Vascular Program, uses when describing the effects of a variety of risk factors on your heart:

  • High blood pressure is like heavy traffic in your arteries. It stresses them, can scar them, and overworks your heart.   Smoking is the equivalent of speeding. It increases your blood pressure and heart rate. It also causes your blood to clot more easily, which may cause blockages; contains cancer-causing agents; and damages your artery walls.  
  • Think of high cholesterol as snow and ice on the road. It damages your arteries over time, and can build up and narrow or block the arteries.  
  • You may not realize that diabetes adds to the traffic congestion in your arteries as well. High blood sugar irritates blood vessels and can lead to significant inflammation, similar to a road under construction.  
  • Your family history can throw a few curves into the mix as well, as 10% of heart disease is genetic.  

Heart Attack = Multi-Car Pileup

In his analogy, which Pack employed at a recent talk for Baystate's Senior Class members, he likens a heart attack to a multi-car pileup. In a multi-car pileup, the road is blocked. You experience major delays, and arrive late, or not at all. And people can die.  

During a heart attack, your artery is blocked. You experience chest pain, and little or no oxygen gets to your heart muscle. Your heart muscle begins to die, which can lead to your death.  

“As we all know, it is sometimes possible to speed or drive in snow and not have a car accident,” says Pack.  “Similarly, not everyone with high blood pressure or diabetes will have a heart attack. However, the more risks you have, the higher your overall risk for a heart attack. At the same time, the healthier choices you make, the lower your risk for heart disease will be in the future.”  

Clearing the Road

Pack says that to keep your artery “roads” open and hazard-free, the answer is a healthy lifestyle. He advises:

  • Not smoking: “If you are a smoker, the single most important thing you can do for your health is to quit,” says Pack. He says to increase your odds of success, “Choose a quit date; plan ahead and get support; and talk to your doctor and start taking medications to help.”
  • Regular physical activity (30 minutes a day): “If the benefits of exercise could be contained in a pill, it would be the most widely prescribed medicine in the world,” says Pack.
  • Taking your medications as prescribed. Pack quotes former surgeon general Dr. C. Everett Koop: “Drugs don’t work in patients who don’t take them."
  • Maintaining a healthy weight: Pack says that weighing in daily, or at least weekly, is associated with healthier weights and long term weight loss.
  • Eating a healthy diet: Pack refers to salt, sugar, and animal fats as the “dietary axis of evil,” and recommends minimizing all three in your diet. “Eating better, regardless of any weight loss, will help you live longer and healthier,” he says.