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Hunters Face Heart Attack Risk

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture
Hunters Face Heart Attack Risk

In just a few weeks, the first of Michigan’s hunting seasons will begin, and tens of thousands of camouflage-clad hunters will head for the woods and the shorelines, with bows and shotguns in hand.

But tragically, some won’t make it back home. Each year, an unknown number of hunters die unexpectedly from heart attacks and sudden cardiac arrests, brought on by the strenuous exercise and dramatic bursts of activity that hunting can bring.

Fortunately, hunters can take steps now to protect themselves from heart dangers later this fall — and to make sure they’ll know what to do if a fellow hunter goes down.

Some of the easiest things to do right away include getting a pre-hunt medical checkup, with special attention to the heart for those who have had heart problems in the past; starting a daily walking routine or other exercise regimen in the weeks before hitting the woods; and learning CPR and first aid.

And, for those hunters who will be stocking up on gear at the giant Cabela’s outfitters in Dundee, Mich. on the weekend of Aug. 22 and 23, there’s an exciting free option: stopping by the Heart of the Hunter Health Fair sponsored by the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center.

From 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday, and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, U-M doctors, nurses, and exercise and nutrition experts will be on hand to help hunters, outdoor enthusiasts and their families get ready for a healthy hunting season.

Visitors to the maize-and-blue tents in front of the store will be able to get their cardiovascular risk, weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels checked for free. They can also learn from U-M experts about their personal cardiovascular health risks — and what they can do now to prevent problems down the road. On-the-spot appointments for visits to the U-M Cardiovascular Center will even be available for those who want individualized follow up.

A broad range of U-M cardiovascular experts will give short talks, and answer questions, throughout both days, providing practical information on healthy eating during hunting season, and discussing specific heart conditions and ways to prevent heart disease. There will also be activities for the kids and raffles of U-M and Cabela's prizes, as well as visits from the U-M Survival Flight helicopter.

Also at the event, hunters can learn about sudden heart problems that can happen during a hunt, and find out how to prevent them -- including new treatments for heart attack survivors that can keep the heart in rhythm. A mobile heart-treatment "lab" – similar to those at the U-M Cardiovascular Center’s new building — will also be on hand for tours and hands-on activities.

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The event was the brainchild of Eric Good, D.O., a U-M cardiologist who specializes in the treatment of heart rhythm disorders — a specialty known as electrophysiology.

“Too many hunters die or are left seriously incapacitated by heart-related illnesses that first strike during the hunt,” says Good. “Every hunter should treat the hunting season as if they were training for a major sporting event like a run or a tournament – because when they hit their target, or drag their trophy back to camp, the excitement and physical exertion can be intense.”

He continues, “The adrenaline rush that comes with spotting your prey, and the sudden activity after sitting still for hours can be a dangerous combination, especially for people who are already at high risk of a heart problem. And for people who have already survived a heart attack or had chest pain in the past, the risk may be especially high.”

Sudden cardiac death occurs when the electrical signals that control the heart’s rhythm suddenly go violently haywire, which results in a chaotic heart beat, or “electrical storm” in the heart that prevents it from beating effectively– a situation called cardiac arrest.

It’s most common among people who have already suffered a heart attack in the past, or who have certain other heart conditions. And while patients can often be revived with a shock from an automated defibrillator — such as those that are now available at many airports and malls — hunters are often miles away from the nearest source of help.

That’s why it’s so important for hunters to get a checkup before they head for deer camp or the duck blind, says Good. Screening can often predict who is most at risk of heart attack or cardiac arrest. And often, doctors will offer the highest-risk patients an advanced type of pacemaker that can detect an irregular heartbeat and shock the heart back into rhythm.

Hunters who have had heart problems in the past should also ask their doctors if they should carry nitroglycerin tablets, to increase blood flow to their hearts if they suffer chest pain or a heart attack. They should also ask their doctors if it’s safe for them to drag a deer or take on other strenuous tasks. And of course, at every checkup it’s also important to get blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol checked, to see if these potentially heart-harming factors are in control or might need treatment.

Since hunting can be pretty strenuous exercise – especially for people who don’t already exercise regularly – it’s important for anyone to start building up their endurance in the weeks before hunting season, Good says. “Even a 30-minute fast walk several times a week can help – anything that gets your heart pumping at 60 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate, which is calculated by subtracting your age from 220.”

Once hunting season arrives, Good says, every hunter should look out for his or her buddies. Although big meals, staying up late, and lots of smoking and drinking might be a tradition for many hunters out in the woods, they can really drag a person down the next day. Instead, treat the night before a hunt as if you were an athlete with a big match the next day.

Out in the woods, pay attention to any problems your hunting companions have. “If you’re with someone and they start getting short of breath, looking pale, or feeling faint or nauseous – or if they feel sudden pain or lose feeling in any part of their body, get help immediately,” Good says. “Even if the sensation goes away within a few minutes, don’t ignore it – it can be a warning sign that something even worse is about to happen. Call 911 from your cell phone if you can get reception, or radio to someone who can. Every minute you hesitate could mean your buddy’s life.”