Heart Attack

What Is A Heart Attack?

The term “heart attack” is often used to refer to signs and symptoms that result from the sudden blockage of blood flow to a portion of the heart. Without good blood flow, the heart does not receive enough oxygen and begins to die.

People suffering a heart attack may experience symptoms such as chest pain, sweating, nausea, weakness, and shortness of breath. Each year about 1.5 million Americans have heart attacks. Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women.

Heart attack is the common term for a “myocardial infarction.” This refers to the permanent damage done to the heart muscle, or myocardium, when blood flow is blocked. A heart attack most commonly happens when a blood vessel that brings blood to the heart is suddenly blocked by a blood clot.

While heart attacks usually come on suddenly, it’s really the result of a process that takes years to develop. Over time, a person’s blood vessels may become hardened and narrowed by the buildup of cholesterol and other fatty substances. Reducing risk factors for coronary artery disease – such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure – is an important way to prevent a first or subsequent heart attack.

A heart attack usually occurs over several hours. Fast action is the best weapon against a heart attack. If a person is treated during the first two hours after a heart attack, early treatments can improve outcomes.

For example, medications called “clot busters” can break down a blood clot blocking a coronary artery, restoring blood flow to the heart and even preventing or reducing the amount of permanent damage done to the heart. In addition, preventing or treating serious abnormal heart rhythms that may occur with a heart attack are an important ways of saving lives.

Need To Know:

A heart attack is a serious condition. But early treatment can improve the outcome by reducing the amount of heart muscle that is damaged and decreasing or preventing complications of a heart attack. Minutes count! If you or someone you know suspects a heart attack, get emergency medical help right away.

The coronary arteries supply the heart muscle with oxygen and nutrients. The word “coronary” means a crown, and is the name given to the arteries that circle the heart like a crown.

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common form of heart disease.

Coronary heart disease develops when one or more of the coronary arteries that supply the blood to the heart become narrower than they used to be, due to the buildup of cholesterol and other substances in the wall of the artery, affecting the blood flow to the heart muscle. Without an adequate blood supply, heart muscle tissue can be damaged.

Deposits of cholesterol and other fat-like substances can build up in the inner lining of these blood vessels and become coated with scar tissue, forming a cholesterol-rich bump in the blood vessel wall known as plaque. Plaque buildup narrows and hardens the blood vessel, a process called atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

Eventually these plaque deposits can build up to significantly reduce or block blood flow to the heart. A person may experience chest pain or discomfort from inadequate blood flow to the heart, especially during exercise when the heart needs more oxygen. This type of chest pain is called angina.

Angina is the body’s warning sign that the heart is being overworked. It can be experienced in a variety of ways.

  • Angina usually manifests as a feeling of pain, pressure, or tightness in the middle chest, especially behind the sternum (breastbone).
  • The sensation may spread to the left shoulder, arm, and hand, or to the neck, throat, and jaw.
  • The attack typically lasts for only a few minutes

An attack of angina does not cause permanent damage to the heart muscle. This is the main difference between angina and a heart attack, during which part of the heart muscle suffers permanent damage (unless the new clot-busting drugs are given in time).

For more detailed information on angina, go to Angina.

Facts About Heart Attack

  • The adult human heart is about the size of a clenched fist.
  • Hearts have been known to pump for 100 years without resting more that a second at a time – a feat unequaled by any man-made device.
  • The average heart beats 60 times a minute; 3,600 times an hour; 86,400 per day; 31.5 million per year, and 2.4 billion in a lifetime.
  • In an average lifetime, the heart pumps 1 million barrels of blood – enough blood to fill 3.3 supertankers – and expends more than enough energy enough to lift a battleship out of the water.
  • In the U.S., about 26.3 million men (27.6 percent) and 22.7 million women (22.1 percent) are smokers, putting them at increased risk for a heart attack.
  • About 99.5 million American adults have total blood cholesterol values of 200 mg/dL and higher (borderline high). About 39.9 million American adults have total blood cholesterol levels of 240 or above (high). An elevated blood cholesterol level is a risk factor for a heart attack.
  • As many as 50 million Americans have high blood pressure, which places them at risk for a heart attack.
  • About every 29 seconds, an American will experience a heart problem.
  • It’s estimated that 7.2 million Americans age 20 and older have a history of a heart attack (4.4 million men and 2.8 million women).
  • Each year, about 1.1 million Americans are expected to have a new or recurrent coronary attack.


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