Improving your odds of surviving a heart attack happens in two ways: actually preventing a heart attack before it even occurs, and trying to make it through a cardiac arrest once it actually strikes.

While it’s important to have the goal of preventing a heart attack all together, you should be aware of the ways to lessen the damage during a heart attack and up your chances of living to see another day.

What to do during a heart attack

The chest pains hit; you think you’re having a heart attack. What’s the best course of action to ensure a higher chance of survival?

First of all, you need to know the signs of a heart attack. There is usually pain in the chest that may or may not travel to your arm. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the chest pains usually feel like pressure or fullness. The pain may be constant, or ebb and flow. You may also feel pain in other parts of your body, such as in your jaw or neck. You may also experience shortness of breath, dizziness, and/or nausea. If you have these symptoms, the most crucial factor is response time.

Call 911 and get to a hospital as soon as possible. Do not drive yourself or have a distraught loved one drive.

After you call 911, chew a 325 mg adult aspirin. According to a study in The American Journal of Cardiology, chewed aspirin will help dissolve clots that may begin to form. It hits your bloodstream in a quick four to five minutes.

Again, do not wait to call 911. Clot-dissolving medicines that can stop a more severe heart attack work best in the first hour after symptoms begin. If there is trained staff available, such as at your workplace, and there is access to an automated external defibrillator (AED), its use can be vital in survival. The American Heart Association recommends a “chain of survival” that involves 1) calling 911, 2) defibrillation, and 3) CPR.

Of course, using a defibrillator and performing CPR requires training and should not be tried by a novice.

Prevent a heart attack before it happens

The ideal situation would be if the heart attack never happened in the first place, and there are many things you can do to decrease your risk of a heart attack. Key lifestyle changes, such as stopping smoking, drinking in moderation (one daily drink for women, two for men), eating well to maintain a healthy weight, and being active are vital to heart health and the prevention of a heart attack.

However, as straightforward as the advice sounds, it’s clearly hard to follow. The CDC reports that one in three adults have cardiovascular disease and about 935,000 heart attacks and 795,000 strokes occur each year.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta hosted a documentary on CNN called “The Last Heart Attack,” which analyzed why people in the United States are so heart sick and what can be done. The biggest takeaway is that while doctors treat the symptoms with stents and bypasses and medications, the focus should be more on diet and prevention.

Many doctors and dietitians recommend a vegan diet in the film; Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn of the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Terry Mason, chief medical officer of Cook County Hospitals in Chicago, and Dr. Dean Ornish of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute are three of the diet’s biggest advocates. But if that sounds too drastic for you, cutting back on animal fats (and high-fat foods in general) and processed foods and eating mostly whole grains, fruits, and vegetables will go miles in helping you avoid a heart attack.

A large-scale study published in 2011 called the Nurses Health Study followed 81,722 female nurses from 1984 to 2011. The researchers wanted to see if lifestyle behaviors influence whether or not women experience a sudden cardiac death. The study defined sudden cardiac death as death that occurred within one hour of the victim first having heart attack symptoms. Four key lifestyle habits were identified that lower the risk of sudden cardiac death: 

  1. Not smoking 
  2. Being at a normal body weight
  3. Exercising for more than 30 minutes a day
  4. Regularly eating vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, fish, and whole grains, and drinking alcohol in moderation.

The study participants filled out questionnaires every two to four years about their lifestyle and diet. By the end of the 26-year study, 321 women had died of sudden cardiac death; their average age was 72. The research concluded that if the women who died of sudden cardiac death had adopted low-risk lifestyles, their chances of dying of an unexpected heart attack would have been reduced to as low as 22 in 100,000.

So, know that there are life-saving steps you can take to survive a heart attack if those dreaded chest pains strike. And realize the real work needs to be before that, with changes to diet and lifestyle for a true improvement on your odds of surviving a heart attack.

Have you had a heart attack? What saved you? What do you wish you had known beforehand? Share your experiences in the comment section below.