1. Health

Heart Attacks

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Updated January 12, 2012

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Arterial Stenosis

HEAL

A heart attack, also called coronary thrombosis or myocardial infarction, occurs when there is an obstruction to the flow of blood in one of the two branches of the coronary arteries. Any substantial disruption to the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the heart muscle interferes with heart function and can threaten the survival of heart tissue itself.

Obstruction of the coronary arteries occurs when a blood clot forms because of a build-up of fatty, roughened plaque, containing cholesterol and other material called atheroma, in the inner lining of the arteries. Narrowing and thickening of the arterial wall is called arteriosclerosis.

Each year, about 700,000 Americans die from heart attacks. Coronary heart disease is responsible for about half of all deaths in Western countries. Men are at greater risk than pre-menopausal women.

Risk Factors for Heart Attacks

There are certain conditions that can increase your chances of developing heart disease, such as obesity, smoking, diabetes, lack of exercise, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, stress, a family history of heart disease, age, and gender.

Although we have little control over some of these conditions, our lifestyle does have a big influence. Stopping smoking, eating a balanced diet, and regularly exercising are recognized as highly effective protective mechanisms. High cholesterol, high blood pressure and smoking can double your chances of a heart attack. If you have all three risk factors, then you can be eight times more at risk than someone with none of them!

Signs and Symptoms of Heart Attacks

There is evidence that up to 20 percent of people who have heart attacks only experience mild symptoms, some symptoms, or no symptoms at all. Most people experience some or all of the following:
  • Severe chest pain (angina)

  • Tightness, heaviness, or pressure or a squeezing feeling in the chest. It can also be felt in the neck, down the arms (particularly the left arm), and in the shoulder.

  • A faint and often irregular pulse

  • Shortness of breath

  • Restlessness

  • Fear

To learn more about heart attacks, visit the About.com Heart Health Center.

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