The coronary arteries are blood vessels that bring blood and oxygen to the heart. A heart attack, or a “myocardial infarction,” occurs when a blood clot blocks one of the coronary arteries, obstructing this blood flow. Interrupted blood flow – and the subsequent cutoff of oxygen – can cause damage to the heart. In many cases, heart attacks are fatal.
What Causes A Heart Attack?
The coronary arteries – those vessels that allow blood to travel to the heart – can become blocked with cholesterol buildup, called plaques. This buildup can occur over many years, and is commonly the result of an unhealthy lifestyle. This is commonly called CAD, or coronary artery disease. CAD is the most common cause of a heart attack.
These buildups cause the coronary arteries to narrow, a condition called “atherosclerosis.” If a plaque ruptures, it can form a clot, blocking the flow of blood through the artery to the heart.
Another, less common cause of a heart attack is a coronary artery spasm. This can occur as a result of drug use (such as cocaine,) and suddenly shuts down the blood flow from one of the arteries to the heart.
Heart Attack Symptoms
Heart attacks aren’t always sudden and intense – often, they come on slowly, and begin with mild chest pain and discomfort. If you know the signs of a heart attack, you’ll be more likely to catch them and receive treatment early, which is crucial for survival. (According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about half of all heart attack fatalities occur within an hour of the first symptom, before the victim reaches the hospital.)
The symptoms of a heart attack include:
- Chest discomfort/tightness, either suddenly or in waves
- Discomfort or tightness anywhere in the upper body
- Lightheadedness, which may cause fainting
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Shortness of breath.
Risk Factors for Heart Attacks
One of the most common – and preventable – risk factors for heart attacks is an unhealthy lifestyle. High cholesterol levels, which are caused by an unhealthy diet and insufficient exercise, can cause CAD and result in blood clots.
Heart attacks have also been shown to run in families. This leads some doctors to believe that the risk of heart attacks is genetic.
Other than genetics and an unhealthy lifestyle, there are many other risk factors for heart attacks that are less common. These include drug use and anaphylactic shock.
Preventing Heart Attacks
The good news is that individuals often have a great deal of control over their personal heart health. Managing your stress levels, maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly all greatly reduce your risk of a heart attack. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can also help heart attack victims recover.
Particularly if heart disease runs in your family, you should speak to your doctor about heart health. Often, the best way to prevent a heart attack is to main a healthy, balanced, low-cholesterol diet and exercise regularly.
Heart Attack Treatments
Early treatment is often crucial for a heart attack victim’s survival. In the event of an attack, doctors or paramedics will often first administer oxygen and aspirin, which can prevent further blood clots.
Once a heart attack diagnosis is confirmed, medical professionals may treat the victim using a combination of medications and surgeries. The purposes of treatment are to lower strain on the heart, dissolve blood clots, thin the blood, and/or remove the clot to allow more oxygen to the heart.