I am lucky to be alive. I consider that fact every day, and even more so after a recent heart attack. After a stay in the hospital, it was determined that I need a quadruple bypass. That surgery is scheduled to happen soon, so it’s gotten me thinking about just how fortunate I was to know the warning signs of a heart attack and was able to take action immediately.

This summer, while on an airplane coming home from a trip to the national DARE Conference, I began to feel slightly off and knew something was wrong. After I was off the plane, things got worse. Knowing what signs to look for and having determined what was going on, I made sure to get to the hospital as soon as possible.

It’s important to know the signs of a heart attack, especially if you have a personal or family history of heart disease. Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, so it is clear many of us could use some education on prevention and on the warning signs.

Some risk factors for heart disease can’t be changed — age, for one. According to the American Heart Association, men older than 65 have the highest rate of death from heart attacks. Additionally, we can’t change our family history, but we can use it to improve our own heart health. Learn your family history and talk to your doctors about it so they can do the proper tests and help you understand your risks and options for prevention.

While some factors we can’t change, there are lifestyle changes we can make to help lessen our risk. It seems like common sense, but having had a heart attack, I think it bears repeating that diet and exercise do matter. Eating healthier and getting regular, moderate exercise can make a huge difference. Alcohol and tobacco use can increase risk for heart disease, so cutting back on those habits also will improve heart health.

In addition to improving heart health, it’s also important to know what a heart attack feels like so you can get medical attention immediately. That knowledge saved my life.

Chest pain or discomfort in the center or left side of your chest, whether mild or severe, occurs with most heart attacks. Pain or discomfort that lasts longer than a few minutes or that goes away then returns can be a sign of a heart attack, whether it feels like heartburn or like pressure, squeezing or pain.

Discomfort in other parts of the upper body also can accompany a heart attack, including discomfort in your arms, back, neck, jaw or even in your stomach area. Shortness of breath is also a warning sign for a heart attack. It is possible that this can be the only sign of a heart attack, but also may accompany chest discomfort or immediately precede it. A cold sweat, nausea and lightheadedness also can accompany a heart attack.

If you think you are having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately. The emergency operator can tell you what to do before the ambulance arrives. The medical personnel on the ambulance can assess your situation and start to provide assistance before you get to the hospital — something that can’t be done if you have a relative or friend drive you there. Don’t take any chances.

Pay attention to your body’s signals, talk to your doctor and take action to get help if you think you are having a heart attack. Your life could literally depend on it.

I am glad that I knew the signs of a heart attack so that I could take action and still be here to spend time with the family and friends that I love. Don’t take your life and your time with loved ones for granted; learn the signs of a heart attack because heart disease knows no bounds. Be able to help yourself, or those around you, by simply knowing the signs of a heart attack.

After my experience, I wanted to share my story and what I’ve learned in the hopes that it helps someone else. I’d also like to thank the community for your outpouring of support and kind words while I was in the hospital recently. As I head in for bypass surgery, I will be feeling confident knowing the number of prayers that have been said and that my family has many caring folks around as I recover.

Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, is chairman of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee and a member of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee.

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