Written on March 7, 2023 by Sendra Yang, PharmD, MBA. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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More than 800,000 people in the United States have a heart attack every year . The staggering statistic shows how common heart attacks are in the United States. A heart attack is a life-threatening medical emergency that requires immediate attention and treatment . Delaying prompt medical intervention may lead to death.
A heart attack follows when part of the heart is blocked, restricting blood flow. The longer the blood flow is restricted in the heart, the more the heart muscle gets damaged because it is starved of oxygen. When heart muscles are damaged, it is irreversible . The damaged tissue becomes scarred and no longer contracts like healthy heart muscles. Over time, a damaged heart muscle will eventually fail. Heart attacks are mainly associated with coronary heart disease because cholesterol plaque buildup in the heart arteries is the usual cause of coronary heart disease, which develops over time .
Don’t confuse a heart attack and cardiac arrest. Knowing the difference can save your life. Both are medical emergencies that require immediate medical intervention for survival. A cardiac arrest is not caused by a blockage of blood flow in the heart but by the sudden loss of heart activity . Cardiac arrest often occurs without warning; a person will become unconscious, unresponsive, and have no pulse or breath. Sometimes the onset of cardiac arrest will present signs and symptoms such as chest discomfort, weakness, pounding heart, or shortness of breath . Without lifesaving intervention, a person will die from cardiac arrest.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the most common signs and symptoms of a heart attack are chest pains, feeling light-headed and weak, pain or discomfort in one or both arms, and shortness of breath [2,5]. Other signs may include unusual tiredness, nausea, or vomiting. Knowing to spot the signs and symptoms of a heart attack can help you undertake life-saving measures.
If you think you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention by calling for emergency help by dialing 911. Research shows that delaying hospitalization can significantly increase mortality risk . While waiting for emergency medical services to arrive, it is recommended to chew on an aspirin . Although aspirin cannot stop a heart attack, it can help inhibit platelet development and prevent blood clots, which are often responsible for causing blockages during a heart attack. Additionally, if your healthcare provider has prescribed nitroglycerin, it should be taken as directed while awaiting emergency personnel. Nitroglycerin will increase blood flow to your heart .
If you or someone you know has a history of heart attacks, keeping a heart attack survival kit is advisable. Heart attack survival kits may include: a list of warning signs of a heart attack, strong recommendations to call 911 and take an aspirin for chest pain, one 325 mg uncoated adult aspirin, CPR instructions, and information about prescribed heart medications and allergies .
Understanding the risk factors associated with heart attacks can play a crucial role in minimizing the possibility of a heart attack. Smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes are the top five contributors to heart attacks . Incorporating healthy preventive lifestyle changes and visiting your healthcare providers regularly can help reduce these risk factors and improve overall health. Reducing these common risk factors will decrease the chances of heart attack mortality. Age is also a significant factor in heart attack occurrences, with a higher risk for those of advanced age .
Consulting with a healthcare professional for a cardiovascular health assessment is recommended to evaluate your risk levels. A comprehensive evaluation will include a physical and biomarker workup to determine potential risk levels and suggest preventive measures. Individuals with a family history of heart attacks and cardiovascular diseases are at an increased risk of experiencing a heart attack, further highlighting the importance of preventive lifestyle changes and regular medical evaluations .