Just like getting to the root of a problem may help you to solve it understanding the cause of a medical condition may help you to prevent it. And when it comes to heart attacks, prevention is critical, with simple pre-emptive measures substantially reducing your heart attack risk.
Like any other organ, your heart needs oxygen to function, which in this case is supplied by blood delivered through the coronary arteries. If blood flow in these vessels is restricted, the heart is deprived of oxygen, which can damage or destroy the affected part of the heart muscle. This is called a heart attack, or myocardial infarction.
The coronary arteries may become narrowed over time by the build-up of cholesterol, fat and other substances, collectively known as plaque, on the inside of the arteries. If plaque ruptures, a blood clot forms at the rupture site, which can block the artery and stop blood flow to the heart, starving it of oxygen and nutrients.
Less commonly, a heart attack may result from a spasm of the coronary arteries, which can be caused by certain drugs such as cocaine. Heart attacks may also be caused by a tear in the coronary arteries (possibly due to high blood pressure) or by blood clots or tumours travelling to the heart from other parts of the body.
Maintaining your plumbing
Now that you know what causes a heart attack, you can take steps to prevent one. If you’ve had one already, you can reduce your risk of recurrence. For a heart-healthy lifestyle, the American Heart Association recommends following a simple ABC programme: Avoid tobacco, Become more active and Choose good nutrition. Quitting smoking, getting regular physical exercise (at least 30 minutes on five or more days a week – anything is better than nothing) and following a healthy eating plan (high in fresh produce and low in fat, salt and sugar) go a long way towards fighting heart disease by reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels, decreasing body weight and minimizing the risk of developing type II diabetes.
Also, reduce stress levels, limit alcohol intake (one drink per day for women, two for men) and manage existing risk factors. You may need medication to control high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, especially if you’ve already had a heart attack. Your doctor may prescribe other medicines to optimize heart function and reduce heart attack risk if you’re at high risk.
While it’s important to try to prevent a heart attack in the first place, it’s equally important to be able to recognize one when it’s happening. Not everyone experiences the same symptoms, so familiarizing yourself with the possible signs of a heart attack is vital, as early intervention is critical – even minutes can save your or a loved one’s life.
Unlike the typical depiction of a heart attack on TV, which is sudden and intense, most heart attacks actually start slowly, with warning signs sometimes presenting hours, days or even weeks before the event. Symptoms often include chest discomfort in the form of pressure, fullness, a squeezing sensation or pain that may last for several minutes or go away and come back. Discomfort or pain in other parts of the body such as one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach is also common. Other possible signs include shortness of breath, breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea and feeling lightheaded. Although both men and women commonly feel chest discomfort, women are more likely than men to experience shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, and pain in the back or jaw.
Most importantly, remember to seek help even if you’re unsure. Many people wait too long to get help because they’re not sure what’s wrong with them or because they ignore the signs until it’s too late. If in any doubt, get it checked out.