Heart Attack

A heart attack happens when the heart is deprived of oxygen because of one or more blocked arteries.



The risk factors for heart attack are generally the same as for high blood pressure and coronary heart disease.  The biggest risks are smoking (smokers suffer heart attacks on average 10 years younger than non-smokers do) and having had a previous heart attack. In the movies, heart attacks are often portrayed as painful and dramatic. But in real life, the symptoms are often more subtle.


It is possible, though rare for a heart attack to occur during sexual activity. Having sex can put strain on a heart that might have previously suffered an attack. This is sometimes known as coital angina. Again, the risk is low so there is no reason to avoid normal sexual activity.


Annually, over a million people in the U.S. have a heart attack. Nearly half of them die. Many have permanent heart damage or die because they don’t seek immediate help

Men suffer heart attacks (also called acute myocardial infarctions) an average of 10 years younger than women do, and they’re more likely to die of a heart attack than women of the same age. The death rate for African American men is even higher than it is for whites. Sadly, half of the men who die of heart disease weren’t even aware that they had a problem. In fact, the most common symptom of a heart attack is, unfortunately, sudden death.


In the movies, heart attacks are often portrayed as painful and dramatic. But in real life, the symptoms are often more subtle. Below are the most common warning signs of heart attack.

  • Angina including pain or pressure in the center of the chest, as if you’re being squeezed or stepped on. Chest pain associated with angina and heart attack can sometimes be mild. Don’t ignore it! The possibility that you’re having an actual heart attack is too great. If you experience chest pain for more than a minute, the pain comes on suddenly and is severe enough to double you over, or it doesn’t go away when you sit down, call 9-1-1
  • Sudden pain in either or both arms, your back, shoulder, jaw, or neck. YThis is not the same pain as when you pull a muscle. If paired with chest pain at the same time, call 9-1-1.
  • Sudden shortness of breath. Whether you think you’re having a heart attack or not, not being able to breathe is a good sign that something’s wrong. Shortness of breath combined with chest or upper body pain is another reason to call 9-1-1 immediately.
  • Racing heartbeat. You know your body and you know how your pulse reacts when you exercise, are nervous, or are in a stressful situation. In most cases, your heart rate should slow down quickly after the event. If it doesn’t, you may be having a heart attack— especially if you’re having chest pain at the same time.
  • Sudden cold sweats, nausea or feeling faint can be signs of a heart attack.


The most effective way of preventing heart attacks is by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, managing your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Here are some tips to help you:

  • Watch your weight. If you’re overweight, talk to your healthcare provider about the best ways to lose those extra pounds. As your weight increases, so does your blood pressure—and losing weight will have an immediate, positive effect. In addition, if you carry your weight around your middle/abdomen, you have a higher risk of having high blood pressure than if you carry it around the hips and thighs.
  • Get plenty of exercise. Thirty minutes every day is ideal and cuts your risk of developing high blood pressure by 25-50%, and it doesn’t have to be all at the same time. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator, dancing, playing sports, or even doing yard work all count. A minute here, a minute there, and you’re up to 30 before you know it.
  • Cut back on salt and sodium. Read the labels on the products you buy and look for ones that are “sodium free” or “reduced sodium.” And start adding less salt to foods you prepare.
  • Eat right . Get more nuts, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fiber, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. For protein, go for lean meats, fish, and beans. Cut back on sugar, and stay away from foods that have saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol.
  • Quit smoking. If you don’t smoke but you live in a home where someone else does, encourage him or her to quit.
  • Watch what you drink. You should have no more than 2 alcoholic drinks per day (if you’re not a drinker, don’t start unless your healthcare provider advises you to) and don’t drink more than 2 caffeinated beverages per day.
  • Have regular physical exams. Make sure to tell your healthcare provider about all symptoms—even ones that might not seem like they have anything to do with your heart at all. For example, erectile problems and depression can be caused by cardiovascular disease.
  • Get your blood pressure checked regularly. Keep track of how/whether it changes over time. To make sure your blood pressure remains within a safe range, you may need frequent blood pressure readings. Sometimes this can be done with a home blood pressure monitoring device or at your local drug/health store.
  • Relax. Research has shown that petting animals, and even looking at fish in an aquarium lowers blood pressure. Meditation is also successful in reducing blood pressure. Reading is also very relaxing, so visit your library and pick up a book for immediate stress relief.

Taking Aspirin to Prevent a Heart Attack

Studies show that when it comes to heart attacks and strokes, good old fashioned aspirin— not Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen)—is pretty close to a miracle drug. Studies have shown that men over 50 years of age, with coronary heart disease, atherosclerosis, or any other cardiovascular disease risk factor—including having had a previous heart attack or stroke—can benefit greatly from taking aspirin every day. Aspirin can reduce damage to the heart during an actual heart attack, and can minimize the risk of having a second (or third or fourth) heart attack or stroke. It may even prevent the first heart attack or stroke from happening in the first place.

But be careful as there are some risks. If you are allergic to aspirin it may increase the risk of asthma. Aspirin can also increase the risk of stomach ulcers. In addition, because aspirin interferes with blood clotting, you shouldn’t take it if you’re already taking blood thinners. Ask your health care provider. Knowing your medical history, he or she will be able to tell you whether the benefits outweigh the risks. What works for others may not necessarily work for you.

Questions to Ask Your Health Care Provider

It’s important that you become proactive in your healthcare in order to get the best treatment. Here are some questions you can ask your healthcare provider.

  1. What makes you suspect that I had a heart attack?
  2. What type of heart attack treatment do you recommend?
  3. What are the benefits, risks and possible complications of each treatment option?
  4. What kinds of examinations and tests will be performed to evaluate the severity of the condition?
  5. Will I be able to return to normal activities, including sexual activity, work and household chores, following heart attack?
  6. Might cardiac rehabilitation services be needed? If so, can I have the contact information?
  7. Do you recommend that I follow a special diet or exercise plan after heart attack?
  8. Can you recommend a local or online support group for heart attack patients and their families and caregivers?


If you experience any of the described symptoms, call 9-1-1 immediately —and then take some aspirin. (Aspirin has been shown to reduce blood clots and increase the chance of surviving a heart attack.) Don’t call your spouse or a friend for help, you can contact them later. You have a better chance of surviving a heart attack if you get professional treatment within an hour of the onset of symptoms.

The longer you wait, the worse off you’ll be. If you’re not sure whether you’re actually having a heart attack, call, let the paramedics determine that.

The following treatments are usually started right away if a heart attack is suspected, even before the diagnosis is confirmed.

  • Oxygen therapy
  • Aspirin to thin your blood and prevent further blood clotting
  • Nitroglycerin to reduce your heart’s workload and improve blood flow through the coronary arteries
  • Treatment for chest pain

For people with the most serious form of heart attack, treatment options include:

  • an ST segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI):a combination of medication to dissolve the blood clot and restore the flow of blood to the heart (this is known as thrombolysis)
  • surgery to widen the coronary artery, which is usually done using a technique called coronary angioplasty

Last modified: May 31, 2014