A heart attack happens when blood flow to a section of the heart is blocked. This deprives the heart muscle of oxygen and can cause that section of the muscle to die.
Heart attacks are the leading cause of adult deaths in the U.S., causing more than 1 million deaths each year. Today, thanks to better awareness on the part of the public and improved treatment, most people who have a heart attack survive.
But treatment needs to begin within one hour of the first sign of symptoms. So, if you or someone you know might be having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately to be transported to the nearest hospital emergency room.
What causes the attack? The coronary arteries are the blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle. Over time, one or more of these arteries can narrow due to a build-up of cholesterol along the arterial walls — known as plaque.
When plaque ruptures in an artery, a blood clot can form and block the flow of blood. This is what usually causes a heart attack.
The severe consequences of a heart attack include heart failure and life-threatening arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).
Heart failure is when the heart muscles are too damaged and weak to adequately pump blood through our bodies. This condition usually takes its toll sometime after the heart attack.
But the most common threat to life is an arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation, which causes the heart to beat so irregularly that it cannot pump blood at all. When someone dies immediately of a heart attack (cardiac arrest), it is usually from ventricular fibrillation. If a person in ventricular fibrillation is given an electrical shock with a defibrillator within the first 5 or 6 minutes after cardiac arrest, a normal rhythm can occasionally be restored. This is why timely emergency response is critical to surviving cardiac arrest.
Most of our communities have fire department EMTs and paramedics who will usually respond first to a 9-1-1 call and are trained to begin potential life-saving treatment.
But the first step to survival is knowing what type of lifestyle choices contribute to heart attacks. Factors that increase the risk of heart attack include:
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol levels
- cigarette smoking
- lack of physical activity
- family history of heart attack
- being a man
- over-indulgence of alcohol
Being aware of the signs of a heart attack can also save your life. These symptoms include:
- Chest pain usually described as a pressure sensation in the middle of the chest, which may be mild or severe. This pain is often mistaken as heartburn or indigestion. The pain can radiate to the jaw, neck or arm, usually on the left side.
- Shortness of breath.
- Nausea, lightheadedness and/or breaking into a cold sweat.
Don’t “tough out” the symptoms of a heart attack. Within minutes of experiencing heart attack symptoms, you should call 9-1-1. Having trained paramedics attend to a victim as soon as possible gives the victim the best shot at survival. If there is no access to emergency medical services, which is rare in our communities, have someone drive you immediately to a hospital emergency room, and preferably not to your doctor’s office, clinic or urgent care center. Try not to drive yourself, as you might put yourself or others in danger if your condition worsens.
Limiting risk factors and understanding the symptoms of a heart attack and seeking timely emergency medical care will go a long way in helping people survive heart attacks and live full, active lives.