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The Big Four "Widow Makers"

Geri-Fact

During a catheterization, a cardiologist inserts a thin tube into a vein or artery. Using dye and an x-ray machine, the doctor can see on a monitor exactly where and how much blockage the patient has. The doctor can even determine how well the blood flows through the blood vessels.

Angina

Last Christmas my dad went upstairs to haul out the annual Christmas tree. By the time he got back downstairs he stopped. My sister, a nurse, asked what he was doing. “I'm taking a break.” My dad, who ran a dairy and still plows snow on his tractor at age 80, never takes a break. He finally confessed that he was feeling chest pains. Under the interrogation of my sister (trust me, it was an interrogation) he admitted to feeling chest pains every time he exerted himself. She knew he was experiencing angina, temporary chest pains or a sensation of pressure when the heart muscle isn't receiving enough oxygen.

Off to the doctor he went. And sure enough, he had a great deal of blockage in a major artery. He now has a stent (a small device that holds a narrowed coronary artery open). He's feeling much better. Good thing my sister caught on. My dad figured it was just old age. He thinks complaining is for wimps. Plenty of Dads think this way, so you really need to probe them for information. Maybe even take them to the mall and see how they do trying to keep up with you at a brisk walk.

Classic angina symptoms can consist of chest pains, indigestion, shortness of breath, and an odd ache around the neck that spreads to the jaw, throat, shoulder, back, or arms. Always get these symptoms checked out if either of your parents experience any one of them. It's a warning. And in my dad's case it was a blessing. Tests to determine what's really going on range from an EKG (electrocardiogram), stress tests, scans, and echocardiograms. If any of these tests turn up something, the doctor might recommend that your dad have a catheterization.

If the doctor finds that there is a blockage of an artery or vein, he or she can either insert a tiny balloon to open up the vessel, put in a stent to keep the vessel open, or bypass the blocked vessel by detouring the unblocked vessels to the heart. There are also many medications that can help. Whatever you do, take the time to do some research. New advances are being made every day, so be sure to stay current.

Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)

If your mom or dad is given this diagnosis, the heart muscle itself is damaged. The damaged muscle slows down the heart's blood flow. Blood backs up either into the lungs or in the veins. In either case, it causes fluid congestion in the tissues. The goal? Damage control. Early intervention is key.

With congestive heart failure your dad might experience fatigue, shortness of breath, a hacking cough, waking up in the middle of the night feeling like he's suffocating, sudden weight gain of two to four pounds in a couple of days, swelling in the ankles, legs, or arms, and a rapid heart beat. Again, no fooling around. You and your dad are off to the cardiologist.

Chances are the doctor will prescribe some medication to keep the damaged heart from failing on the job. CHF is not a death sentence. The drugs Dad will take must be monitored very closely—no self-medicating. He must take the correct dosage. A healthy heart diet is definitely in order, too. The American Heart Association Web site offers healthy heart diets and a wealth of other resources on eating well.

New research has found that women have a higher heart attack death rate than men, more complications during hospitalizations for a heart attack, and different types of heart attacks than men. Women have a higher proportion of unstable angina—severe chest pains with no permanent clot. Older women with diabetes and high blood pressure are at greatest risk of dying from heart attacks; younger women (under 50 years) are twice as likely to die of a heart attack than their male counterparts. Don't make the mistake of thinking that heart attacks are a “guy thing.” Look out for your mom, too.

The Most Common Heart Attack Warning Signs
(from the American Heart Association)

  • Uncomfortable feeling of pressure, fullness, squeezing, or pain in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes
  • Pain spreading to the shoulders, neck, or arms
  • Chest discomfort with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea, or shortness of breath
  • Atypical chest, stomach, or abdominal pain
  • Nausea or dizziness
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
  • Unexplained anxiety, weakness, or fatigue
  • Palpitations, cold sweat, or paleness


More on: Aging Parents

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents © 2001 by Linda Colvin Rhodes, Ed.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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