Heart Attack


What is a heart attack?
A heart attack (also called myocardial infarction) is when part of the heart muscle is damaged or dies because it isn't receiving oxygen. Oxygen is carried to the heart by the arteries (blood vessels). Most heart attacks are caused by a blockage in these arteries. Usually the blockage is caused by atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of fatty deposits (called plaque) inside the artery. This buildup is like the gunk that builds up in a drainpipe and slows the flow of water.

Heart attacks can also be caused by a blood clot that gets stuck in a narrow part of an artery to the heart. Clots are more likely to form where atherosclerosis has made an artery more narrow.


How do I know if I'm having a heart attack?
The pain of a heart attack can feel like bad heartburn. You may also be having a heart attack if you:

Feel a pressure or crushing pain in your chest, sometimes with sweating, nausea or vomiting
Feel pain that extends from your chest into the jaw, left arm or left shoulder.
Feel tightness in your chest
Have shortness of breath for more than a couple of seconds
Don't ignore the pain or discomfort. If you think you are having heart problems or a heart attack, get help immediately. The sooner you get treatment, the greater the chance that the doctors can prevent further damage to the heart muscle.


What should I do if I think I am having a heart attack?
Right away, call for an ambulance to take you to the hospital. While you wait for the ambulance to come, chew one regular tablet of aspirin. Don't take the aspirin if you're allergic to aspirin.

If you can, go to a hospital with advanced care facilities for people with heart attacks. In these medical centers, the latest heart attack technology is available 24 hours a day. This technology includes rapid thrombolysis (breaking up clots using medicines called "clot busters"), cardiac catheterization and angioplasty.

In the hospital, you might be given "clot busters" that reopen the arteries to your heart very fast. Nurses and technicians will place an IV line (intravenous line) in your arm to give you medicines. They will also do an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), give you oxygen to breathe, and watch your heart rate and rhythm on a monitor.


Risk factors for a heart attack
Increasing age--83% of people who die from heart disease are 65 years of age or older
High cholesterol level
High blood pressure
Family history of heart attack
Race--African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians are at greater risk.
Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
Lack of exercise
Sex--More males have heart attacks, although heart disease is the leading cause of death for American women.


How can I avoid having a heart attack?
Talk to your family doctor about your specific risk factors (see box above) for a heart attack and how to reduce your risk. Your doctor may tell you to do the following:

Quit smoking. Your doctor can help you. (If you don't smoke, don't start!)
Eat a healthy diet. Cut back on foods high in saturated fat and sodium (salt) to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Ask your doctor about how to start eating a healthy diet.
Control your blood sugar if you have diabetes.
Exercise. This sounds hard if you haven't exercised for a while, but try to work up to at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (that raises your heart rate) at least 4 times a week.

Lose weight if you're overweight. Your doctor can advise you about the best ways to lose weight.
Control your blood pressure if you have hypertension.

Talk to your doctor about whether aspirin would help reduce your risk of a heart attack. Aspirin can help keep your blood from forming clots that can eventually block the arteries.