Heart Attack: Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention

The heart is one of the largest muscles in the body. The wall of the heart is the muscle that does the pumping, and is called the myocardium. A heart attack happens when the flow of blood to the heart is blocked, mostly by a buildup of cholesterol, and other substances, that form plaque in the arteries that feed the heart. The blocked blood flow can damage or destroy part of the heart muscle. A heart attack is a serious medical emergency, and is also known as myocardial infarction, cardiac infarction, or coronary thrombosis.

Causes of a heart attack

The heart muscle needs a constant supply of oxygen-rich blood to nourish it. The coronary arteries provide the heart with this necessary blood supply. A heart attack occurs when one or more of the coronary arteries become blocked. The primary cause for this is coronary heart disease (CHD). CHD is a condition in which the coronary arteries get narrow due to deposits of various substances, including cholesterol. These deposits are called plaques.

During a heart attack, one of these plaques ruptures or bursts, causing a blood clot to develop at the site of the rupture. If large enough, the clot can block the flow of blood through the coronary artery. If the blockage isn’t treated quickly, the portion of heart muscle fed by the artery begins to die.

A heart attack can also be caused by a spasm of a coronary artery that blocks blood flow to part of the heart muscle.

A heart attack can lead to complications, such as abnormal heart beats (arrhythmias), heart failure, cardiogenic shock, heart rupture etc.

Risk factors for a heart attack

Certain risk factors make it more likely that you’ll develop coronary heart disease (CHD) and have a heart attack. The more risk factors you have, the bigger your risk. These risk factors include:

  • Age – Men age 45 or older and women age 55 or older
  • Family History – If your siblings, parents or grandparents have had early heart attacks
  • High Blood Pressure – can damage arteries that feed your heart
  • High Cholesterol – A high level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol can narrow arteries
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes¬†
  • Lack of physical activity – Contributes to high blood cholesterol levels and obesity
  • Obesity or being overweight – Associated with high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, high blood pressure and diabetes
  • Stress
  • Unhealthy diet – Consuming large quantities of saturated fats

Symptoms of a heart attack

Heart attack symptoms can vary from person to person. Some people can have few symptoms and are surprised to learn they’ve had a heart attack. Symptoms can be mild or more intense and sudden. The most common signs and symptoms of a heart attack are:

  • Pressure, tightness, pain, or a squeezing sensation in your chest, that may spread to your arms, neck, jaw, back or abdomen
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Extreme weakness and anxiety

Preventing a heart attack

Having a healthy lifestyle is the most effective way to not only prevent but also recover from a heart attack. Measures for healthy living include the following:

  • Avoid smoking
  • Maintain blood cholesterol at optimum levels
  • Keep blood pressure at a safe level
  • Stay physically active and do regular exercise
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Eat a balanced, heart-healthy diet
  • Keep diabetes under control
  • Reduce stress
  • Drink alcohol in moderation
  • Get regular medical checkups