What Is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to the heart is cut off. Approximately 790,000 Americans have a heart attack each year. They can be linked to genetics, or they can be preventable with a change in lifestyle and diet. Read on to learn more.

10 minute read

Last Updated July 7, 2020

Heart Attack: Symptoms, Treatment, and Long-Term Outlook

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when the blood supply to the heart is cut off. Without blood and oxygen, your heart cells, tissues, and muscles begin to die. 

Heart attacks are serious medical emergencies, and medical attention should be sought right away if one is suspected. Symptoms vary for everyone, but in the case of heart attacks, it is better to be safe and seek help anytime the common symptoms appear. 

What Causes a Heart Attack?

The leading cause of a heart attack is a cardiac condition known as atherosclerosis. This is the buildup of plaques within the arteries, which prevents blood from getting to the heart muscle. 

Heart attacks can also be caused by blood clots or a ruptured or torn blood vessel. There are a number of risk factors that do put you at risk for a heart attack. Some of these are risk factors you cannot control. 

Age: being over 65 years of age increases your risk

Gender: Men are more at risk than women, but studies might be showing us a different perspective

Race: People of African descent have a higher risk

History: If your family has a history of heart attacks or heart troubles, your risk increases

The risk factors you can control include:

Smoking
High cholesterol
♦ Excessive alcohol consumption
♦ Poor diet
♦ Stress
Obesity
♦ Lack of exercise

Heart Attack Symptoms

Some people will have warning signs of a heart attack, while others do not. They typically happen unexpectedly, and most commonly reported symptoms include:

Chest pain or discomfort
Sweating
Nausea
♦ Upper body pain
Fatigue
♦ Difficulty breathing
Lightheadedness

What does a heart attack feel like? Symptoms also vary for men and women, so there is not just one answer to that. Men typically report squeezing chest pain, irregular heartbeat, indigestion, shortness of breath, and a cold sweat

Women, on the other hand, report sleep disturbances, unusual fatigue, and headaches, shortness of breath, anxiety, upper back, neck and throat pain, and pressure in the middle of the chest. 

Heart Attack Diagnosis

Your doctor will make the diagnosis of a heart attack after conducting a physical examination and an electrocardiogram (EKG). A blood sample is taken to check for any damage that may have been caused. 

It is important to share all health information with your doctor for an accurate diagnosis, but specifically family history and any previous heart issues and lifestyle choices.

Heart Attack Treatment

Treating a heart attack can involve medication, non-surgical procedures, and lifestyle changes. The most commonly prescribed medications for heart attacks include:

♦ Aspirin
♦ Painkillers
♦ Nitroglycerin
♦ Blood pressure medication
♦ Antiplatelet and anticoagulant drugs to break up and prevent blood clots

Heart attacks usually happen unexpectedly, so it’s most likely that initial treatment will come from an emergency room physician. After initial treatment, you will need to follow up with your regular doctor. You may also be referred to a heart specialist (cardiologist), but this will depend on the severity of the heart attack. 

Heart Attack Diet

There is no diet that specifically prevents a heart attack, but by following a heart-healthy diet, you can significantly reduce the chances of having one. By avoiding certain foods and adding others, you can promote overall heart health and longevity. You want to avoid high-fat foods, high-sugar foods as well as processed and fried foods. The best foods to add to your diet for heart health include:

♦ Leafy green vegetables
♦ Whole grains
♦ Berries
♦ Avocados
♦ Fatty fish such as salmon
♦ Beans
♦ Walnuts and almonds
♦ Tomatoes
♦ Dark Chocolate

The goal is to increase your intake of the nutrients that support your heart, such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin K, antioxidants, fiber, and healthy fats.

Natural Treatments for Heart Attack

Outside of dietary changes, engaging in regular exercise is a great way to protect your heart and promote strength in your heart muscles. Even as little as thirty minutes a day of exercise can help lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and control weight, which are all factors that impact your heart health. 

Exercise also reduces stress, which is another risk factor for heart attacks. Stress can also be reduced by taking part in yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises on a regular basis.

Heart Attack Surgery

In some cases, after a heart attack, surgical procedures may be recommended. The common procedures below can both reduce pain and prevent another heart attack. 

Angioplasty: This opens up a blocked artery using a balloon or by removing plaque buildup. A stent (a wire mesh tube) is placed into the artery to keep it open after the angioplasty.

Heart bypass surgery: The blood is re-routed around the blockage to your heart.

Heart valve surgery: The leaky valve or valves are replaced to help the heart pump more efficiently.

Pacemaker: The device is implanted below the skin and is designed to help your heart maintain a regular rhythm.

Heart transplant: This is only performed in severe cases where the heart attack has caused permanent damage to tissue throughout most of the heart.

What Are the Variations of Heart Attack?

There are a few different types of heart attacks that you can experience. 

1. STEMI (ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction): This is when the coronary artery becomes completely blocked, and a large portion of heart muscle stops getting blood and oxygen.

2. NSTEMI (Non-ST segment elevation myocardial infarction): When the artery is only partially blocked the doctor will recommend an NSTEMI. While there may be less damage with this version, it is still very serious.

3. Coronary artery spasm: Also known as unstable angina, this is the silent heart attack. This occurs when the arteries tighten so much that blood flow stops or becomes significantly reduced. There is no permanent damage caused, but your risk for a more serious heart attack is increased.

Heart Attack Statistics

♦ It is estimated that a heart attack occurs in the U.S every 40 seconds.
♦ Every year, 790,000 Americans have a heart attack.
♦ One out of every 5 heart attacks is silent (damage is done, but the person is unaware).

Heart Attack and Disability

A heart attack alone is not typically considered to be a disability. As part of ongoing cardiovascular problems or a long-term heart condition, consideration may be given for disability. A heart attack certainly prevents you from acting in the short-term, but it can be successfully treated and prevented. 

Heart Attack and Children

Heart attacks in children are very rare and occur as the result of a genetic predisposition to exceptionally high levels of cholesterol in the blood. In these cases, the underlying condition goes unnoticed, and the first sign is a heart attack. 

Symptoms of a heart attack in a child are similar to those in adults, including upper body discomfort, cold sweat, lightheadedness, nausea, and anxiety. It is important to seek medical treatment immediately. 

What Is the Long-Term Outlook?

There is much that you can do to prevent heart attacks and promote overall heart health. Despite certain risk factors that you cannot control, with the right diet, regular exercise, and limiting bad habits, you can significantly reduce your risk of a heart attack. After a heart attack, these same changes can help to protect you from having another one. If you choose to do nothing, the result could be more serious life-threatening complications such as heart failure. Seek medical help right away after a heart attack, and follow a heart-healthy lifestyle for the best possible outlook.

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