It could happen at any time for any number of reasons.

Each year, about 1.1 million Americans suffer a heart attack. About 460,000 of those heart attacks are fatal. About half of those deaths occur within one hour of the start of symptoms and before the person reaches the hospital.

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. CHD is caused by a narrowing of the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart and often results in a heart attack.

Fortunately, everyone can take steps to protect their heart–and their life or that of someone else. The key is seeking medical care at the first sign of a possible attack.

What is a heart attack?

Most heart attacks happen when a clot in the coronary artery blocks the supply of blood and oxygen to the heart. Often this leads to an irregular heartbeat, called an arrhythmia, which causes a severe decrease in the pumping function of the heart.

A blockage that is not treated within a few hours causes the affected heart muscle to die.

Heart attack warning signs

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense, the so-called “movie heart attack.” Contrary to popular belief, most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often, people affected are not sure what is wrong and wait too long before getting help.

Here are the signs that a heart attack could be occurring:

Chest discomfort – most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back. It can feel like a pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.

Discomfort in other areas of the upper body – symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

Shortness of breath – with or without chest discomfort.

Other signs – may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. However, women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, back or jaw pain.

Risk factors

Some people are more likely than others to have a heart attack because of their “risk factors.” Risk factors are behaviors or conditions that increase the chance of a disease. Some of the risk factors for a heart attack are beyond any control, but most can be modified to help lower the risk of having a first or repeat heart attack.

Uncontrollable risk factors – pre-existing coronary heart disease or a family history of heart disease. Age is also a factor no one can control; the risk increases for men after age 45 and for women after age 55.

Controllable risk factors – in no particular order, smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, physical inactivity, diabetes and obesity are all factors that can be controlled or reversed.

Preventive maintenance

Medications. High-risk patients typically can be put on drug therapy in an effort to prevent a heart attack. This could include something as simple as an aspirin per day or another blood-thinning medication. Cholesterol-lowering medicines may also be prescribed if cholesterol and triglyceride levels are too high or there is a family history of high cholesterol.

Diet. A heart healthy diet has been the subject for some debate, but a general rule of thumb is to eat a varied diet and control portion or serving size. Limit fat, cholesterol and sodium intake, while eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, which contain antioxidants that help prevent wear and tear on coronary arteries.

A diet that includes fish is recommended due to the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, which help improve blood cholesterol and prevent blood clots.

Exercise. Physical activity has numerous benefits from maintaining a healthy weight to helping to control blood pressure and diabetes, even managing stress levels by producing endorphins which leads to a positive attitude.

A sedentary lifestyle is one of the top risk factors for heart disease. Regular aerobic exercise, such as walking, reduces the risk while also improving your quality of life.

Find an exercise program that works and gradually increase aerobic sessions to 20-30 minutes, three to four times a week. Stay hydrated and stop exercise if you become overly fatigued or short of breath. As with any exercise program, always check with your doctor and discuss options and benefits.


Learn the signs of a heart attack and if there is any indecision on whether one has occurred, always have it checked out. Time is of the essence! Fast action can save lives.

For more information on becoming heart-healthy and implementing lifestyle changes, refer to:

The American Heart Association

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

For tips on exercise and diet, before or after any heart problems:

Exercise Can Help a Heart Repair Itself (MSNBC)

How Can Physical Activity Become a Way of Life? (American Heart Association)

FDA Heart Health Online

Exercise & the Heart (iVillage)

Exercise For A Healthy Heart (

[Mark Dempsey]