No matter how old you are, people need to make sure they pay attention to heart attack warning signs, health providers say.

Rene Rodriguez, divisional director of the Center for Heart Disease at Medical Center Hospital, is living proof of that. About five years ago, he found out he had a 95 percent occlusion of the left arterial descending artery.

A husband and father of an 11-year-old daughter, Rodriguez said he felt the first twinges the day after his 40th birthday.

“… I was sitting in my recliner drinking coffee. It must have been around 7:30, 8 o’clock. … It was a very different type of discomfort, right at the sternum so my first thought was, ‘Oh man, am I having a heart attack?’ So I get up and walk around a little bit,” Rodriguez said.

He said he had taken his cholesterol medication and aspirin, but was already thinking in the back of his mind that he might be having a heart attack. Rodriguez went to the restroom, looked in the mirror and saw perfect beads of sweat on his forehead.

The first thing he did was call the supervisor at MCH and ask him what cardiologist was on call. He decided to go to the emergency room and drove himself, which he said is not a good idea. He was supposed to work that Sunday as a house supervisor, but got the day off to do yard work.

“… They got me in really quick,” Rodriguez said.

He was given some nitroglycerin and the pain went away quickly. Rodriguez said that was another confirmation that he had a blockage in his heart.

Labs were ordered and an EKG was conducted. Rodriguez said the lab work was negative. The doctor told him he needed to be admitted to the hospital, but he said he was OK and noted that the critical care and chest pain centers were full.

Rodriguez, who has a doctorate of nursing practice, said he would come back the next day. He did his payroll and then to have an angiogram. The angiogram was read on Tuesday and Rodriguez said cardiologist Dr. Fernando Boccalandro called and asked if he wanted to look at it.

“I was still in denial. Nurses are the worst patients by the way. We treat ourselves. We diagnose ourselves. We’re looking at the images. There’s one spot. He says, ‘You know what Rene, I don’t think it’s a blockage. I think it’s bridging.’ The artery goes into the muscle and every time it contracts it squeezes that causing chest pain,” Rodriguez said.

That’s when his occlusion was found.

“I can see where the regular population may think it’s heartburn. We have many patients who say, ‘It started two weeks ago.’ It’s imperative for them to get medical attention anytime they start having any type of heart symptoms,” Rodriguez said.

He added that symptoms vary from patient to patient aren’t always the stereotypical grabbing the chest. It can be anything from jaw pain to chest pressure and pain in the left arm. Rodriguez said a patient came in once with an earache, but was actually having a heart attack.

“We’ve seen just about everything,” Rodriguez said.

He advises people that if they have a family history of heart issues, they should start getting checked on a regular basis for any cardiac condition — every six months to a year — no matter how old they are.

“Any correlating diagnosis that you may have — high blood pressure, high cholesterol — every six months is what I would recommend,” Rodriguez said.

He recommends starting with their family doctor and having them check for blood pressure and labs. If the need arises, they can refer you to a specialist, such as a cardiologist.

Traditionally, Boccalandro said, heart attacks have been associated with elderly patients.

“We have about 700,000 heart attacks yearly in United States,” he said.

And their age is declining. Boccalandro and Rodriguez said they have seen heart attacks in people in their 20s, 30s and 40s because people aren’t as active and have worse dietary habits.

“The main reason I think we see that is we see a higher incidence of co-morbidities in younger people,” such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension, which are important risk factors, Boccalandro said.

“I think that we’re seeing this disease coming earlier and earlier. Younger patients tend to have symptoms and they can be dismissed because the association of heart attacks with a younger individual is not a consideration,” Boccalandro said. “People don’t think about it. They can get in trouble because they don’t realize it’s the heart. It’s important not to ignore symptoms that could suggest heart disease.”

These can include chest pain, chest discomfort, shortness of breath and getting tired easily.

He said it’s important for any patient, even at age 20, to be checked out for risk factors that can affect the heart like high blood pressure, weight, glucose and cholesterol.

Use of tobacco products significantly increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease and heart attacks, Boccalandro said.

He added that people don’t cook at home anymore and eat a lot of foods high in saturated fat.

Rodriguez said he and his wife have made an effort to eat more healthfully since his cardiac event.

“It’s a little bit organization and discipline because you know at some point you’ll get hungry and have to eat. Plan (so) when that moment comes you have something healthy in your hand, rather than ‘I’m hungry. Let me see what I can find.’ I think that can make a tremendous difference if you plan ahead,” Boccalandro said.

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