Commonly asked questions about heart attacks:
- What is a heart attack?
- What can cause a heart attack?
- What are the symptoms and signs of a heart attack?
- What are some of the risk factors associated with having a heart attack?
- What is the survival rate of a heart attack?
- How can I prevent a heart attack?
- What medicines are used to treat a heart attack?
What is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack occurs when blood carrying oxygen is unable to flow into a section of heart muscle and becomes blocked.
When the blood is unable to get to that section of the heart, the heart muscle will begin to die if blood flow is not restored.
What can Cause a Heart Attack?
A heart attack will most frequently occur due to a condition known as coronary heart disease (CHD).
CHD is a condition where plaque builds up inside of the coronary arteries. When the arteries become obstructed by the plaque, it prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching the heart.
Atherosclerosis is a condition in which plaque begins to build up in the arteries. The accumulation of this plaque usually takes many years to form.
After the plaque has built up, it will eventually rupture inside the artery, causing a blood clot to form on top of the plaque. If the blood clot becomes large enough, it can slow down even or stop the blood flow through the artery completely.
If regular blood flow is not restored to the heart quickly, a portion of the muscle that the artery was attached to begins to die. The healthy heart tissue will be replaced with scar tissue. The damage caused by a heart attack may not be obvious, or it may cause severe and long-lasting problems.
What are the Symptoms and Signs of a Heart Attack?
There are four main symptoms/signs that you may be having a heart attack:
- Chest discomfort: The majority of heart attacks involve mild pain or discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that comes and goes in waves. It can feel as though there is an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
- Discomfort in other areas of the upper body: Some areas where you may feel discomfort or pain may be in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath: This includes shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
- Other common signs: May include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
What are Risk Factors Associated with Heart Attacks?
There are many factors that can be associated with contributing to a heart attack. However, you may be able to improve or eliminate many of these risk factors in an effort to reduce your chances of having a heart attack.
- Age: The older you are, the more likely you are to have a heart attack. Heart attacks are more likely to occur in men over the age of 45 and women over the age of 55.
- Smoking: Smoking or long-term exposure to secondhand smoke increase the risk of a heart attack.
- High blood pressure: Over time, high blood pressure can damage arteries that feed your heart the oxygen rich blood it needs, by accelerating atherosclerosis. High blood pressure — as a result from diabetes, obesity, smoking or high cholesterol — will increase your chances of having a heart attack even more.
- High blood cholesterol or triglyceride levels: A high level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (aka “bad” cholesterol) is likely to narrow arteries. A high level of triglycerides, a type of blood fat related to your diet, also increases your risk of heart attack. However, if you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol it causes your risk of a heart attack to decrease.
- Diabetes: Not producing enough insulin or not responding to insulin properly causes your body’s blood sugar levels to rise. Having high blood sugar, increases your risk of a heart attack.
- Family history of heart attacks: If your siblings, parents or grandparents have had early heart attacks (by age 55 for male relatives and by age 65 for female relatives), you may be at an increased risk.
- Lack of physical activity: Being inactive contributes to high blood cholesterol levels and obesity. People who exercise regularly have better overall cardiovascular fitness, which decreases their risk of heart attack. Exercise is also beneficial for lowering high blood pressure.
- Obesity: Obesity is linked with high blood cholesterol levels, high triglyceride levels, high blood pressure and diabetes.
- Stress: Depending on how you handle your stress, it could lead to an increased risk of a heart attack.
- Illegal drug use: Using any kind of stimulant drug, such as cocaine, can trigger a spasm of your coronary arteries that can cause a heart attack.
- History of preeclampsia: Preeclampsia is condition that causes high blood pressure during pregnancy and can increase the overall risk of heart disease.
- A history of an autoimmune condition: Conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus as well as others can increase your risk of having a heart attack.
What is the Survival Rate of a Heart Attack?
Heart attacks are the third largest cause of death in the United States, behind cancer and other forms of heart disease.
A new study conducted by the Institute of Medicine stated that less that 6 percent of people who suffer a heart attack outside of a hospital will survive. Roughly 395,000 cases of cardiac arrest reportedly happen outside of a hospital every year, and less than 6 percent survive. Approximately 200,000 cases occur inside of hospitals, of which only 24 percent survive.
How Can I Prevent a Heart Attack?
There is no way to eliminate the risk of heart attack, however, there are many ways to help prevent the risk of getting heart attacks. WebMD as well as Mayo Clinic both offer suggestions to reduce the risk of heart disease:
- Don’t smoke: Smoking makes you twice as likely to have a heart attack than non smokers.
- Improve cholesterol levels: If your cholesterol levels are too high, you are at an increased risk of having a heart attack. To help lower cholesterol, eat a diet low in cholesterol, fat and refined sugars.
- Control high blood pressure: High blood pressure is the most common heart disease risk factor. Exercise and healthy eating help, but some people need medicine to help control it.
- Get active: People who are active are less likely to get heart disease than people who are not.
- Follow a heart healthy diet: Eat foods that are low in fat and cholesterol. Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and other plant-based foods. The fiber is good for your cholesterol, and you’ll get the vitamins you need as well.
- Control diabetes: Many people have diabetes and don’t even know it. Talk with your doctor to get tested and get treated.
- Manage stress and anger: Everyone has stress and anger, but how you deal with it makes all the difference. Make sure you have a healthy way of dealing with both in order to reduce the risk of heart disease.
What Drugs are Used to Treat a Heart Attack?
Mayo Clinic lists eight medications that may be used to help treat a heart attack.
- Aspirin: You may be instructed to take an aspirin immediately, aspirin reduces blood clotting, thus helping maintain blood flow through a narrowed artery.
- Thrombolytics: Thrombolytics are used to help dissolve a blood clot that is blocking blood flow to your heart. The earlier you receive a thrombolytic drug after a heart attack, the greater the chance you will survive along with having less heart damage.
- Antiplatelet agents: These drugs are given to help prevent new blood clots from forming as well as prevent existing blood clots from getting any larger.
- Heparin: Most likely you will also be given heparin. Heparin is used to make your blood less “sticky” or less likely to form clots.
- Pain relievers: A variety of pain killers such as morphine may be used to help alleviate your discomfort.
- Nitroglycerin: Is used to treat chest pain, it can help increase blood flow to the heart by dilating the blood vessels.
- Beta blockers: Help relax your heart, slow your heartbeat and decrease blood pressure making your heart’s job easier. Beta blockers can also help limit the amount of heart muscle damage and prevent future heart attacks.
- ACE inhibitors: These are used to reduce blood pressure as well as stress on the heart.