Heart attacks were the leading cause of death in the United States in 2020. What are your chances of having a heart attack? Is there anything you can do to prevent a heart attack?
What is a heart attack?
A heart attack happens when one of the coronary arteries, the arteries supplying the heart muscle with oxygen, becomes blocked. Oxygen cannot reach the heart muscle, and a section of it begins to die. Usually, this blockage is caused by plaque that breaks away from the lining of the artery and becomes lodged, forming a clot.
A heart attack is a life-threatening emergency. If you or someone around you is having symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 immediately. The sooner you get to a hospital, the sooner you can receive the care you need.
What causes a heart attack?
The most common cause of a heart attack is coronary artery disease (CAD). This is a condition that results when plaque builds up on the walls of the arteries that supply your heart muscle with blood. This plaque causes your arteries to narrow (atherosclerosis). If this plaque breaks off, it can form a blood clot which can block the artery and lead to damage of the heart muscle.
A coronary artery spasm can also cause a heart attack; the spasm blocks the artery and leads to muscle damage or death due to the lack of oxygen. Substance abuse can lead to coronary artery spasms.
COVID-19 infection can also cause internal damage that can lead to a heart attack.
What are the risk factors for a heart attack?
Symptoms of a heart attack vary for different people. Some of these risk factors cannot be controlled or modified. These include:
- Age. As you get older, your chances of having a heart attack increase. Most people who die from the condition are over the age of 65.
- Family history of a heart attack. If a close family member suffered a heart attack, you are considered at a higher risk.
- Gender. Men are more likely to experience heart attacks than women, and they will often have them earlier in life.
- Genetics. African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiians have an increased risk of developing heart disease that can lead to heart attacks.
You can control some heart attack risk factors through simple lifestyle choices. These include:
- High blood pressure. Eat a heart-healthy diet full of fresh vegetables and fruit. Avoid buying food with added sodium or consuming too much salt with your meals. Eat lean meats and avoid processed foods. Take your blood pressure medications as prescribed by your doctor. Exercise at least 20-30 minutes 3-4 days every week.
- High cholesterol. Take any cholesterol medications you have been prescribed. Eat a heart-healthy diet. Work out most days of the week.
- Not getting enough exercise. The American Heart Association recommends adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week.
- Obesity. Eat a healthy diet and commit to regular physical activity to help maintain a healthy weight.
- Smoking. Stop smoking and avoid second-hand smoke if you can.
- Stress. Practice stress management techniques.
- Diabetes. If you have diabetes, eat a healthy diet and try to keep your blood sugar levels under control.
- Drug use. Do not take any medication or drugs that are not prescribed or recommended by your doctor.
What are the symptoms of a heart attack?
Symptoms of a heart attack can differ by gender and individual factors. Generally, they might include:
- Crushing pain in the chest, sometimes the pain will radiate into your back or down your arm
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or a feeling of lightheadedness
- A cold sweat
- Pain or discomfort in your jaw, back, shoulders, or neck
- Abdominal pain
Some people will have all the typical symptoms, others will only have one or two or won’t notice anything at all. However, on average, the majority will experience at least some symptoms of a heart attack ahead of the emergency.
For some people, a sudden cardiac arrest (your heart stops beating) is the first sign of a problem.
When should I call 911?
If you or anyone around is having symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 immediately. A heart attack is a life-threatening condition; you need to get to a hospital as quickly as possible.
Do not try to drive yourself or someone else with symptoms of a heart attack to the hospital. Call an ambulance; the ambulance crew will be able to give you preliminary treatment on the way to the hospital that may save your life.
If the person loses consciousness, give chest compressions until the ambulance arrives or you become too tired to continue.
How can I reduce my risk of a heart attack?
Preventing a heart attack can be as simple as adopting some lifestyle changes:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet full of fresh vegetables and fruit.
- Avoid buying food with added sodium or adding salt to your food.
- Eat lean meats and avoid processed foods.
- Take your blood pressure and cholesterol medications as prescribed by your doctor.
- Exercise at least 20-30 minutes 3-4 days every week.
- Manage the stress in your life the best way you can.
Heart attacks are a leading cause of death in the United States.
A heart-healthy diet, regular exercise, stress management, and taking your medication as prescribed can help to reduce your risk of a heart attack.
Knowing the risk factors and symptoms of the condition will help you recognize it and react quickly by seeking the necessary medical attention.
Call 911 if you or someone near you is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack.
American Heart Association. (2017). Treatment of a Heart Attack
American Heart Association. (2018). American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids
Cardiac Health. Heart Healthy Exercise
CDC. (2021). Heart Attack Symptoms, Risk, and Recovery
National Institute on Aging. (2019). What Is a Heart Attack?
Mayo Clinic. (2022). Heart attack - Symptoms and causes
Mayo Clinic. (2021). Heart-healthy diet: 8 steps to prevent heart disease
Velikova, Lina, MD, Ph.D., (2021). 25 Heart Attack Statistics You Must Be Aware of in 2022