A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when one or more regions of the heart muscle experience a severe or prolonged lack of oxygen caused by blocked blood flow to the heart muscle.
The blockage is often a result of a buildup of plaque composed of fat deposits, cholesterol and other substances. Plaque ruptures and eventually a blood clot forms. The actual cause of a heart attack is a blood clot that forms within the plaque-obstructed area.
If the blood and oxygen supply is cut off severely or for a long period of time, muscle cells of the heart suffer damage and die. The result is dysfunction of the muscle of the heart in the area affected by the lack of oxygen.
Heart Attack Risk Factors
There are two types of risk factors for heart attack, including the following:
Inherited (Genetic) Factors: Most at Risk Are:
- People with inherited high blood pressure
- People with inherited low levels of HDL (high-density lipoproteins), high levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) blood cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides
- People with a family history of heart disease (especially with onset before age 55)
- People with type 1 diabetes
- Women, after the onset of menopause (generally, men are at risk at an earlier age than women, but after the onset of menopause, women are equally at risk)
Acquired Factors: Most at Risk Are:
- People with acquired high blood pressure
- People with acquired low levels of HDL (high-density lipoproteins), high levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) blood cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides
- People who are under a lot of stress
- People who drink too much alcohol
- People who lead a sedentary lifestyle
- People overweight by 30 percent or more
- People who eat a diet high in saturated fat
- People with type 2 diabetes
A heart attack can happen to anyone. It is only when we take the time to learn which of the risk factors apply to us, specifically, can we then take steps to eliminate or reduce them.
Managing Heart Attack Risk
Managing risks for a heart attack begins with:
- Examining which of the risk factors apply to you, and then taking steps to eliminate or reduce them
- Becoming aware of conditions like hypertension or abnormal cholesterol levels, which may be "silent killers"
- Modifying risk factors that are acquired (not inherited) through lifestyle changes
- Consulting your physician as the first step in starting to make these changes
- Consulting your health care provider soon to determine if you have risk factors that are genetic or inherited and cannot be changed, but can be managed medically and through lifestyle changes
Heart Attack Warning Signs
Although each individual may experience heart attack symptoms differently, these are some of the most common:
- Severe pressure, fullness, squeezing, pain or discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes
- Pain or discomfort that spreads to the shoulders, neck, arms or jaw
- Chest pain that increases in intensity
- Chest pain that is not relieved by rest or by taking nitroglycerin
- Chest pain that occurs with any of these additional symptoms:
- sweating, cool, clammy skin or paleness
- shortness of breath
- nausea or vomiting
- dizziness or fainting
- unexplained weakness or fatigue
- rapid or irregular pulse
Although chest pain is the key warning sign of a heart attack, it may be confused with indigestion, pleurisy, pneumonia or other disorders.
The symptoms of a heart attack may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.
Responding to Heart Attack Warning Signs
If you or someone you know exhibits any of these warning signs, act immediately. Call 911, or your local emergency number.
Disclaimer: This material provides general information only. It should not be used in place of the advice, instructions, or treatment given by your doctor or other health care professional.