A heart attack is one of many complications related to cardiovascular disease (CVD). But factors like your eating habits, lifestyle, and genetics can all contribute to your heart health.

Although you can’t predict getting a heart attack, you may be able to prevent one by getting regular testing, starting on medication if you need to, and making healthy lifestyle modifications.

Read on to learn how prevalent heart attacks are, their causes and risk factors, and more.

While it’s important to know what might cause a heart attack, it’s more pressing that you familiarize yourself with its symptoms.

A heart attack is a serious medical condition that requires immediate medical attention. Being familiar with the possible warning signs of a heart attack will keep you on alert and potentially save your life.

Signs and symptoms

While chest pain is the most recognizable sign of a heart attack, there are other symptoms to look out for. These include:

  • discomfort in the chest, with or without pain that lasts for at least a few minutes at a time
  • pain and discomfort in other parts of the upper body, such as the left arm, jaw, or stomach
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • nausea
  • shortness of breath
  • cold sweats

It’s important to be familiar with all of the symptoms of a heart attack because it can affect everyone differently.

A heart attack can also vary between men and women. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), both genders can experience chest pain, but women are more likely to notice other symptoms in addition to the symptoms mentioned above, such as:

  • unusual fatigue
  • weakness
  • heaviness or weakness in the arms


A heart attack happens when at least one of your coronary arteries gets blocked. Most heart attacks are caused by coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD is marked by blocked arteries from substances like cholesterol as they build up over time.

Once an artery is blocked, the plaque buildup can rupture and then spill into the bloodstream. At the same time, a blood clot forms at the site of the initial rupture in your heart, which can then inadvertently block blood flow through the artery entirely.

In essence, this can prevent your heart from getting the oxygen and other important nutrients it needs to keep pumping.

Heart disease continues to be the number one cause of death in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack each year.

Women are also at a higher risk of complications from a heart attack. This is partly because they might not recognize some of the signs early on.

The good news is that the survival rate for a heart attack is 90 percent. Early detection and advances in medical treatment are able to help people who survive a heart attack live long, healthy lives.

The key is being able to spot the warning signs of a heart attack so you can get to emergency care you need, and get on treatment as soon as possible.

Also, once you’ve had a heart attack, you’re at a greater risk of having another one. According to the AHA, 20 percent of adults ages 45 and older who have had a heart attack will have another one within five years.

This is why it’s so important to adhere to your treatment plan, follow a heart-healthy diet, and exercise regularly.

Now that you have a better idea of some of the symptoms and causes of a heart attack, you should start to consider your risk. Understanding how things like diet, lifestyle, and family history impact your heart health can help you get ahead of the game to prevent getting a heart attack or complication.

Risk factors

The three most risk factors of a heart attack are smoking, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure (hypertension). According to the CDC, almost half of all adults have at least one of these three major risk factors.

Other medical conditions can also increase your risk of having a heart attack. These include, but are not limited to:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • diabetes
  • excessive alcohol consumption or binge-drinking
  • illicit drug use
  • metabolic syndrome
  • obesity


Some risk factors may be out of your control, like what’s in your genes. If a parent or other close relative of yours has had a heart attack, you’re at a greater risk of having one.

You should also pay closer attention to your blood pressure and cholesterol if hypertension and high cholesterol run in your family.

Communicating these risks to your doctor can help them figure out the proper course of treatment to help you avoid a future heart attack.

Overall, race and ethnicity don’t play a major role in the development of heart disease. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death among most racial groups in the United States.


Your risk of a heart attack may be directly influenced by what you eat.

One study suggests that up to half of all cardiovascular deaths are linked to poor diet. Follow these tips for a heart-healthy diet:

  • reduce saturated fat in your diet (this is found in animal products, such as meat and dairy)
  • avoid all trans fat
  • swap saturated and trans fat for more healthy fat, such as olive oil and avocado
  • eat fatty fish two to three times per week
  • decrease red meat in your diet and choose lean cuts only
  • limit salt and sodium in your diet, especially if you have high blood pressure
  • avoid foods that have added sugar
  • switch from processed grains to whole versions, such as wheat bread and pasta
  • eat more fruit and vegetables (these should make up half your meal)
  • reduce your portion sizes

If you need help starting on a new diet plan, have your doctor recommend a specific diet to fit your needs, or seek the expertise of a nutritionist.


In addition to starting a treatment plan and following a heart-healthy diet, you’ll need to make the proper lifestyle modifications to help reduce any unnecessary stress and strengthen your heart. This includes incorporating exercise and mindfulness into your daily routine.

In addition to stopping bad habits, such as smoking, you should start on an exercise program. You can begin with something simple, like going for a 30-minute walk a few days a week. Gradually increase the intensity as you’re able.

You should also consider mind-body practices like meditation and deep breathing. While exercise can help you build muscle and gain physical strength, mind-body practices can strengthen your mind by having you focus on the good in your life. This type of positive thinking can reduce your stress levels, which in turn can help prevent a heart attack.

Check on Your Mental Health

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Answer 6 simple questions to get an assessment of how you’re managing the emotional side of heart attack recovery, along with resources to support your mental wellness.

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heart attack self assessment

Your heart health should be a top priority whether you’ve had a heart attack before or not. It’s important to realize that people of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds can have a heart attack. Early detection, medical treatment, and following a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle can help decrease your chances of having a heart attack or other complication.