Alan Thicke death: Heart attacks 'quite common' in seemingly healthy people
Published Wednesday, December 14, 2016 12:16PM EST
Last Updated Thursday, December 15, 2016 9:45AM EST
In light of Alan Thicke’s death while playing the game he loved, a cardiologist says heart attacks in healthy, active people are “quite common,” and highlight the importance of understanding potential warning signs.
Speaking to CTV News Channel the day after Thicke’s sudden death from a heart attack while playing hockey, Dr. Chi-Ming Chow said many people experience few or no symptoms before cardiac arrest. Heart attacks can occur without any warning in otherwise healthy people who exercise, said Dr. Chow, a cardiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
“They can suddenly have plaque rupture inside the arteries, affecting the blood flow to the heart, which may give them some symptoms initially,” he said Wednesday. “The blockage may continue to get worse to such an extent that hearts can stop.”
Thicke, 69, was playing hockey with his youngest son in Los Angeles when he suffered a heart attack. He was best known for playing the beloved father on the “Growing Pains” sitcom, which aired from 1985 to 1992.
Dr. Chow said potential warning signs of a heart attack can include chest discomfort, shortness of breath and not feeling “right” during exercise.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada says that heart attack symptoms vary from person to person and may not always be sudden or severe. The foundation lists sweating, discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulder and arms, as well as nausea and light-headedness as other possible signs.
“The other main message is that, when people play hockey, often they don’t do much exercise in between,” Dr. Chow said. “So it’s important to continue to be physically active throughout the week, and not just for that two or three hours when you do your pick-up hockey.”
According to Dr. Nicolo Piazza, an interventional cardiologist at the McGill University Health Centre, even people in their 50s who appear to be in great shape can suffer a heart attack.
“We’re not able to really predict when a heart attack is going to happen,” Piazza told CTV Montreal.
Doctors believe that the sudden starts, stops and sprints in hockey can strain a healthy heart. But Piazza says, typically, patients “have some underlying heart disease,” known as coronary plaques, which are a buildup of cholesterol and calcium.
“If someone sometimes exerts themselves, this can lead to some increase in stress on the heart,” Piazza said.
Cardiologist Dr. Todd Anderson told The Canadian Press that there is no science to determining the right age a person should stop rigorous activity such as ice hockey. He tells his patients to enjoy activities.
“I caution them about doing it to extremes, you know go out and enjoy yourself, get some activity, but don’t play like you’re 25,” said Anderson, who is the director of the Libin Cardiovascuar Institute of Alberta and spokesman for the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation.
“For other individuals that have significant heart disease, then I tend to discourage that kind of activity.”
Many arenas in Canada now have defibrillators that can be used for people experiencing sudden cardiac arrest, which can occur after a heart attack. In February 2013, then-prime minister Stephen Harper said his goal was to have another 1,500 of the devices in rinks across the country.
Although many people have heart attack warning signs, Anderson said, at least for a quarter of people who have a heart attack, “their first event is a sudden death.”
As the population gets older and more people remain active well into their 60s and 70s, it’s important to stay on top your heart health, Dr. Chow said.
“If you feel anything unusual – discomfort, shortness of breath – when you’re exercising, talk to your family doctor and your specialist.”
With files from The Canadian Press