Causes of Heart Attacks

Heart Attacked Defined

A heart attack is the occurrence of heart tissue death due to a coronary thrombosis. A coronary thrombosis is a blockage of one of the coronary arteries by a blood clot. This blockage does not allow blood to flow properly through the arteries to the heart. A lack of blood results in heart tissue death. While the tissue that is affected immediately might be small, it has serious consequences for the overall functioning of the heart.

The heart is a muscle, a very important one at that. It serves to pump blood that does not have oxygen to the lungs. Here, blood picks up oxygen and is then transported back to the heart so that it can then pump blood to the entire body. This action of pumping blood to the farther points of the body requires a lot of strength by the heart. When part of the heart muscle dies due to a lack of oxygen the other parts of the heart are required to work harder to maintain blood flow. While this might seem like a way to make up for the deficit, the blood clot will continue to block blood to the heart and cause further tissue damage. When the tissue damage is severe, the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently, causing a heart attack.  A heart attack can be fatal, specifically because people are known to often confuse its symptoms with other illnesses.


Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the primary cause of heart attacks in the United States. Coronary heart disease is characterized by plaque build-up in the arteries. The plaque that builds up narrows these vessels, which provide your heart with blood and oxygen. This increases the amount of work your heart is required to exert in order to get the right amount of blood to the rest of our body.

Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. The plaque that causes the death hardens in the arteries and results from fatty material consumed by individuals. This plaque might remain stable in the arteries for a very long time frame; however, there is always that chance that it can rupture. When the plaque surface is broken a blood clot forms at its surface. Once this occurs, it can grow to a point where it blocks the artery completely. This blockage stops oxygen-rich blood from flowing to the heart. If the blockage is not removed it can be fatal. It is important to understand symptoms to know when to contact your physician and receive treatment.

A less common cause of a heart attack is the occurrence of a coronary artery spasm. When a spasm occurs the coronary artery tightens which cuts off blood flow to the heart. This spasm can occur as a result of illegal substance abuse, extreme emotional stress of pain, exposure to extremely cold temperatures, and cigarette smoking. While this occurs very rarely, it is still a possible to experience. Knowing symptoms will help you identify if you experience a spasm.

Risk Factors

Aside from diet, other risk factors include age, gender (men have a higher risk), family history, and race (African, Mexican, and Native Americans all have higher risks). These factors are those that you are not able to change. However, there are modifiable risk factors that you can help to reduce. These include having diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, smoking, chronic kidney disease, having had prior heart issues, being overweight, and getting little physical activity. Reducing these risk factors is an important step to managing your health.

First, it’s important to check your blood sugar regularly. If you begin to demonstrate an upward trend in blood pressure or have been displaying levels that are above ideal (>130 mg/dL) this could be a sign of diabetes or pre-diabetes. Your physician can help you learn how to manage your sugar and slow the progression of diabetes.

Smoking is often very difficult to stop and is what many people find as the hardest battle. There are multiple tricks you can try include a nicotine patch or using nicotine gum. Your physician would also be able to discuss alternative methods on a one-on-one basis.

Eating a variety or fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy will lower calories, help maintain a healthy body weight, and provide you with adequate amounts of calcium, potassium, and magnesium, all necessary nutrients to a well-balanced lifestyle. Unsaturated fats are preferred to saturated fats as they help reduce fat-deposition and clogging of the arteries.

Reducing stress is an extremely impactful way to help reduce your risk of having a heart attack. Stress causes vasoconstriction, or constriction of the blood vessels in the body. This limits the amount of blood that is able to flow to through the body, meaning that it makes the heart work even harder.

Everyone is tired of hearing about the need for exercise. However, it is important to achieve at least 30 minutes of exercise a day to maintain your weight and reduce abdominal adiposity. Upper body fat deposition increases the amount of fat that surrounds the organs, including the heart. This increases the strain placed on the heart to pump blood.

Common Symptoms

There are several hallmark symptoms associated with having a heart attack. Many of these are often confused with symptoms common to minor illnesses, including nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and shortness of breath. Other symptoms that might have you thinking what you are experiencing is more serious than a simple upset stomach include an immense amount of pressure in the chest that lasts for minutes, pain that extends from the chest to the shoulder, multiple episodes of chest pain, sweating, and fainting. These symptoms are the kind that are often dramatized on the television and give you a false sense of security at self-diagnosis yourself.

Symptoms vary by person and some might present with symptoms commonly portrayed on television, while others may have little to no symptoms. It’s important to see your physician regularly so that they can assist in ensuring good health and fast treatment if you do experience a heart attack.

Your Physician

It is important to share all past family and medical history with your physician so that they can assess your risk of having a heart attack. This will help them in identifying the best course of action to safely reducing your risk.

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