More than a million Americans suffer a heart attack every year. Every 34 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a heart attack. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 34 percent of people who experience a heart attack die from it. While that number seems grim, it is actually relatively low compared to the recent past—an improvement that can be attributed to better preventive care, better awareness of heart attack symptoms and what to do during a heart attack, and better post-attack treatment options.
Causes & Symptoms
A heart attack—or myocardial infarction—occurs when a coronary artery becomes blocked, momentarily stopping the flow of blood to the heart. The heart muscle is thus cut off from its essential supply of oxygen and nutrients and becomes damaged. The primary underlying cause of heart attacks is coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD is the leading killer of both men and women in the U.S.
In CAD, cholesterol and a fatty substance called plaque build up on the inner walls of the coronary arteries, causing them to narrow. The plaque can rupture and cause a blood clot that blocks the flow of blood. This causes a heart attack.
Immediate action is key during a heart attack. Many heart attack-related deaths and much of the permanent damage caused by a heart attack can be avoided with a quick and proper response. That being said, most heart attacks don’t happen the way they are portrayed in movies and on television, with a man clutching his chest and violently thrashing around on the ground. Symptoms of a heart attack are usually more subtle and less dramatic (and women can have heart attacks too). Symptoms include:
- chest discomfort that feels like heavy pressure, squeezing, or pain
- shortness of breath
- pain in the upper body (arms, shoulders, neck, jaw and back)
- dizziness and lightheadedness
- sweating or cold sweats
Treatment & Outlook
Restoring blood flow to the heart as quickly as possible is the key to successfully treating a heart attack. Medications that can help restore blood flow include:
- super aspirins
- blood-thinning medication
- statins (and other cholesterol-lowering medication)
A cardiologist may need to perform a more aggressive procedure to treat your heart attack. These procedures may be performed during and just after the heart attack to restore blood flow to the heart. They could also be performed after your heart has had time to fully recover as a measure to prevent future complications.
- coronary artery bypass surgery
- coronary angioplasty
- coronary stenting