Heart Attack: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Heart attack (also known as myocardial infarction) is a serious medical emergency in which the supply of blood to the heart is suddenly becomes blocked.

A heart attack commonly occurs as a result of coronary artery disease (CAD). Coronary artery disease is the most common form of heart disease. It occurs due to the buildup of cholesterol and other substances, called plaque, on the arterial walls.

Over time, these plaques can narrow or block the arteries, make it harder for blood to flow through them. This process is called atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries.

Coronary artery disease

Most heart attacks happen when a blood clot suddenly cuts off the hearts’ blood supply, causing permanent heart damage.

Each year, more than one million Americans had a heart attack, and almost half of them die. CAD, which often results in a heart attack, is the leading killer of both men and women in the United States.

Risk Factors for Heart Attack

There are several factors that increase the risk for heart attack. The more risk factors you have, the higher your chance of developing a heart attack.

The risk factors for heart attack are divided into two groups; modifiable (ones you can change) and non-modifiable (ones you cannot change).

Non-modifiable risk factors

Age

Your risk of having heart attack increases as you get older, especially after age 45 in men and after age 55 in women.

Gender

Men are at a greater risk for heart attack than women, but their risk grows and may be equal to men after menopause.

Race

Some ethnic groups such as African Americans, Mexican Americans, American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and some Asian Americans, have a higher risk of heart attacks than white Americans.

Family history

If you have a family member (parent, sibling) with heart attack, you are at increased risk for heart attack.

Modifiable risk factors

High blood pressure

High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart attack. Both high systolic pressure and high diastolic pressure increase the risk of heart attack.

High blood cholesterol

If the cholesterol level is too high, it can build up in the arteries walls. This causes arteries to become narrowed, which slows the blood flow to the heart muscle. This can lead to chest pain (angina) or heart attack if a blood vessel gets blocked completely.

Diabetes

A diabetic patient whose pancreas is unable to produce enough insulin are at higher risk of heart attack. According to the American Heart Association, at least 65 percent of patients with diabetes die of some form of cardiovascular disease. If you have diabetes, it’s important to control your blood sugar levels.

Being overweight

Being overweight can lead to increased high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and diabetes, all major risk factors for heart attack. Learn more about how to lose weight.

Smoking

The chemicals found in cigarettes damage the cells that line the coronary arteries and elevates blood pressure, resulting in an increased chance of developing a heart attack.

Unhealthy diet

Diets that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol can contribute to the development of heart attack.

Physical inactivity

People who are not active have a greater risk of heart attack than people who exercise regularly.

Symptoms of Heart Attack

Signs or symptoms of heart attack can vary from person to person and they may not always be severe. Although chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack, but the level of pain can vary greatly from one person to another.

For some people, the pain is severe and it feels like an elephant is sitting on their chest. While others, the pain can be mild and similar to that experienced during fatigue.

Also, some women and old people may not experience chest pain at all. The common warning signs and symptoms of heart attack include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Pain in several areas of the upper body
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Cold sweat
  • Nausea

If you experience any of these symptoms, especially if you know that you have a risk factor for heart attack, dial 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance.

Do not worry if you have any doubts about whether your symptoms are related to heart attack. Paramedics would rather to be called out to know that it just a misunderstanding than be called when it was too late to save someone’s life.

Heart Attack Diagnosis

As soon as ambulance or medical staff arrive they will begin tests to find out what is happening to you. These will include:

  • ECG (electrocardiogram): This is to show the amount of damage to your heart muscle and where the damage is. Treatment to restore blood flow and minimize the amount of heart muscle damage (known as ‘reperfusion’) can be achieved in different ways depending on your ECG readings so it is important that you have an ECG as soon as possible to show exactly what is happening.
  • Blood tests: These tests are to measure the amount of troponin in your blood. Troponin is a protein that is released into your blood stream when your heart muscle is damaged, for example during a heart attack. The level of troponin in your blood is increased if you have had a heart attack.

Heart Attack Treatment

The treatment options for a heart attack will depend on the type of heart attack you have. Once a heart attack is confirmed, your doctor may put you on medications to help unblock the clogged arteries and restore blood flow to the heart.

Medications

If one or more of your coronary arteries is completely blocked, your doctor may prescribe you a thrombolytic drug. This medication work to quickly dissolve any blood clot that may be causing the blockage. It is given though a vein using an intravenous (IV) tube.

You may also be given an additional medication called a glycoprotein IIb/IIIa inhibitor if it is thought you have an increased risk of experiencing another heart attack at some point in the near future.

Glycoprotein IIb/IIIa inhibitors don’t break up blood clots, but they prevent blood clots from getting bigger. They’re an effective method of stopping your symptoms getting worse.

Surgeries and procedures

Depending on the extent of blockage and where it exists, your doctor may recommend a procedure or surgery to restore and maintain blood flow to the heart. These procedures include:

  • Angioplasty
    Angioplasty is a procedure to open a narrowed or blocked coronary artery. During an angioplasty, the doctor will insert a plastic tube through a small incision made in the groin or arm. You’ll stay awake during the procedure.

    The doctor will guide the tube through the artery to the site of the blockage. A small balloon is then inflated to open up the blockage. A mesh tube called a stent will be left in the blocked area to keep the artery open.

  • Heart bypass surgery
    Heart bypass surgery creates a new route for blood and oxygen to reach your heart. During a heart bypass surgery, your doctors will take a blood vessel (often a piece of vein from the upper leg) and use it to make a detour, or bypass, around the blocked artery.

    Most people are placed on a heart-lung bypass machine or bypass pump during the surgery. This machine does the work that your heart would normally do while doctors operate on your heart. Heart bypass surgeries typically last four to six hours.

Other procedures

Heart attacks can permanently damage a portion of the heart or disrupt the electric activity responsible for a normal heartbeat.

After a heart attack, your doctor may recommend additional procedures, including the placement of a pacemaker to help maintain a normal heartbeat.

A heart attack can also damage the valves of the heart, which help to keep blood flowing in the proper direction through the heart.

In some heart attack patients, a valve repair or replacement may eventually become necessary.

How to Prevent a Heart Attack

The most effective way to prevent having a heart attack is to make lifestyle changes to keep your heart healthy and your blood pressure in check. Here are five main steps you can take to help prevent a heart attack.

1. Eat a healthy balanced diet

To help reduce plaque buildup and prevent blockage and in your heart, you need to consume healthy, balanced meals. In general, a balanced diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat-free dairy. It also includes lean proteins, such as poultry, fish, and beans.

You should also avoid or limit foods that are high in saturated fat, trans fats, and cholesterol. Try to get in at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables and limit your salt intake to less than one teaspoon per day. Learn more about a balanced diet.

2. Exercise regularly

Being active and exercise regularly will help lower your blood pressure by keeping your heart and blood vessels in good condition. Incorporate at least 30 minutes of exercise in your daily routine. Try to include low-impact activities such as walking, jogging, swimming and cycling to help decrease your blood pressure.

3. Stop smoking

Smokers are two to four times more likely to develop heart attack than non-smokers. But once you quit, you can eventually lower your risk to that of someone who has never smoked. Check out these tips to help you quit smoking.

4. Limit alcohol consumption

Alcohol is a refined carbohydrate that turns to sugar in your blood. This can cause plaque build up. Additionally, alcohol is high in calories, which can lead to weight gain.

If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Limit your alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women.

5. Manage stress

Chronic stress can cause the heart to work harder. This can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart attack.

Learning how to manage stress can improve both your emotional and physical health. Participating in activities you enjoy as well as meditation and yoga are great ways to cope with stress.

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