Medically reviewed by Angela Ryan Lee, MD
A heart attack—medically known as a myocardial infarction—occurs when a blockage in your bloodstream interrupts blood flow and oxygen to the heart. Without a quick restoration of this blood flow, the affected part of the heart begins to die because of a lack of oxygen. Unfortunately, without proper intervention, heart attacks can be fatal.
Recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack is essential for quick intervention and treatment. Symptoms may include chest discomfort, a sudden feeling of weakness, dizziness, and shortness of breath. If you or someone around you shows signs of having a heart attack, it’s critical to call emergency services immediately. The quicker the response, the better the chances of recovery.
The aftermath of a heart attack doesn’t mean an end to an active life. With swift treatment and appropriate care, many people continue to lead fulfilling lives. While heart attacks are common, there are several prevention strategies you can implement in your life to reduce your risk of having one.
Who Is Most at Risk?
Heart attacks often occur when the heart doesn’t receive enough oxygen-rich blood. A common cause of a heart attack is coronary artery disease—a heart condition that develops when coronary arteries (the vessels that supply your heart with blood) become narrowed due to the accumulation of a waxy substance called plaque. Over time, the narrow blood vessels can cause chest pain, difficulty breathing, or a blockage that may cause a heart attack.
There is also a type of heart attack called MINOCA, which stands for myocardial infarction in the absence of obstructive coronary artery disease. This occurs more frequently in people assigned female at birth, younger individuals, and certain racial and ethnic groups, including African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latin Americans.
Heart attacks that are not a result of coronary artery disease can be triggered by other conditions that affect the heart. You may be at risk of a heart attack if you live with any of the following:
Small plaques: A build-up of plaque in the walls of your arteries (blood vessels) can lead to blood clots and obstruct blood flow
Coronary artery spasms: In some cases, the coronary artery can experience a sudden, severe tightening, which can block blood flow
Blood clots: Known as a coronary artery embolism, this happens when a blood clot forms elsewhere in the body and travels to the coronary artery, causing a blockage
Artery dissection: Occasionally, the inner layers of a coronary artery can tear, leading to the formation of a blood clot that can block blood flow
It's worth noting that your chances of developing heart disease or having a heart attack can increase if you have a family history of cardiovascular problems. If your immediate family members, like your parents or siblings, have had heart problems, there's a possibility you might have them too.
For example, if your siblings have heart issues, your own risk of facing similar problems can increase by around 40%. If your parents developed heart issues at a young age, your own risk of heart attack can jump by 60% to 75%. That said, it's vital to pay attention to your family's heart health history. This can give you a heads-up about potential heart issues you may have in the future and give you the opportunity to try preventive measures to lower your risk of illness.
How To Reduce Risk
There are several things you can do to monitor and prevent your risk of a heart attack. These include getting regular tests and screenings, making adjustments to certain lifestyle factors, and sometimes even asking your provider about complementary medicine methods.
Testing and Screenings
It's important to get regular or annual physical check-ups with your healthcare provider to learn about your overall health status. During these appointments, your healthcare provider will likely check on the following factors that have been linked to heart attacks:
Blood pressure: High blood pressure doesn't always present with symptoms, but it can increase heart attack risk. Get it checked during your regular health checkup and discuss your readings and any treatment you may need if your blood pressure is too high or too low.
Cholesterol levels: A fasting lipoprotein profile test measures your cholesterol levels. For most people at normal risk of a heart attack, providers recommend taking this test once every four to six years. But if you're at a higher risk for heart disease, heart attack, or stroke, your provider may recommend more frequent exams.
Blood glucose (sugar): Your healthcare provider will typically order a standard blood test known as the comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP) to check your blood glucose—or the amount of sugar you have in your bloodstream. Having excess glucose could be a sign of diabetes, which increases your risk of a heart attack. Getting your blood sugar levels checked annually or monitoring your glucose if you have diabetes can help assess your risk of a heart attack.
Fortunately, there are several lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of a heart attack and help you lead a healthy and full life. These prevention strategies include:
Quitting smoking: If you or someone close to you smokes, quitting is one of the most effective ways to protect against heart attack. It's not always easy to quit a long-term tobacco habit. If you're interested in quitting, talk to your healthcare provider and seek out other smoking cessation resources for extra support.
Eating a balanced diet: Your diet is a powerful way to lower your risk of a heart attack. Opt for nutrient-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while minimizing saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium. Balance is key to keeping your heart healthy.
Keeping an eye on cholesterol: Having high cholesterol can increase your risk of a heart attack. Lowering your intake of saturated fats and staying active can help maintain cholesterol levels. If dietary and exercise habits aren't lowering your cholesterol levels, talk to your provider about medications that can keep your cholesterol in check.
Controlling blood pressure: High blood pressure increases your heart attack and stroke risk. Cutting down on salt, taking prescribed medications for hypertension, and regular physical activity can help manage your blood pressure.
Get moving: One way to keep your heart healthy is by participating in physical activity or exercising regularly. Experts recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. Starting slow is okay—every bit of activity contributes to a stronger, healthier heart.
Maintaining a weight that is right for you: Excess fat around your abdomen can increase the number on your scale and increase your risk of heart disease. A balanced diet and regular movement can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight, all while reducing the chances of heart complications.
Managing diabetes: If you have diabetes, regular check-ups and a well-managed lifestyle, including a balanced diet and physical activity, are crucial to control blood sugar levels and lower the risk of a heart attack.
Prioritizing sleep: Quality sleep is a cornerstone of your overall health. Strive for 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to improve sleep quality and reduce heart disease risk.
Reducing stress: Chronic (long-term) stress is a leading factor for a variety of health conditions—including heart attack. Lower your stress levels by finding healthy ways to express your feelings and reduce tension. These strategies may include yoga, journaling, meditation, spending time in nature, or hanging out with your loved ones.
Limiting alcohol use: Excessive drinking can lead to a host of health issues, including elevated blood pressure and blood sugar—both of which can increase your risk of heart disease. If you consume alcohol, limit your intake to one drink per day if you were assigned female at birth or two drinks if you were assigned male at birth.
Some studies show that using plants like ginseng and ginkgo biloba might help with heart problems and reduce the risk of heart attack. Some early findings suggest these complementary medicines may be effective, but there isn't enough research on these methods to prove if they're safe and effective. If you're interested in adding complementary or alternative therapies to medically approved prevention strategies, talk to your provider about their recommendations.
When to Contact a Healthcare Provider
If you have an underlying condition, a family history of heart problems, or other concerns that may increase your risk of a heart attack, it's a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider openly about your worries or questions. Your provider takes into consideration your medical history and individual needs, making them the best fit to offer you personalized health advice. Remember that each person's health and body are unique, so what works for others might not be suitable for you.
By consulting with your healthcare provider, you ensure that any steps you take to reduce heart attack risks are safe and tailored to your specific health profile. Additionally, if you're considering significant changes like a new diet or exercise regimen, or if you need to manage conditions like high blood pressure or cholesterol, getting professional advice is important to navigate these changes effectively and safely.
A Quick Review
Heart attacks can happen when a blockage in your bloodstream prevents your heart from receiving enough oxygen-rich blood to function. While heart attacks are common, there are certain things you can do to prevent a heart attack or reduce your risk.
These prevention strategies include quitting smoking, controlling blood pressure and blood sugar, eating a balanced diet, getting enough exercise throughout the week, and lowering your stress levels. If you're concerned about your heart health or may be at risk of a heart attack, it's best to see your healthcare provider about your questions and ways to lower your chances of heart complications
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