About Heart Attacks

Heart attack, known by the medical term "acute myocardial infarction," is a form of coronary heart disease. A heart attack happens when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart is severely reduced or cut off completely. This happens because coronary arteries that supply the heart with blood can slowly become thicker and harder from a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances that together are called plaque. This process is known as atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis does not develop quickly. It begins early in life, but in most cases, health effects are not seen until between ages 50 and 60 years. When the heart is starved for oxygen and nutrients, it is called ischemia. When damage or death of part of the heart muscle occurs as a result of ischemia, it is called a heart attack.

About 735,000 Americans will have a new or recurrent heart attack each year, someone in the United States has a heart attack every 40 seconds. More than 610,000 people will die of heart disease, making it the leading cause of death in men and women.The good news is that there are effective treatments for heart attacks that can save lives and prevent disabilities. Treatment is most effective when started within one hour of the beginning of symptoms. Always call 911 right away if you think someone is having a heart attack.

Heart attack hospitalization data identify people admitted to the hospital due to a heart attack. Tracking heart attack hospitalizations can help to:

  • Examine trends in heart attack hospitalizations over time.
  • Evaluate geographic differences in hospitalizations.
  • Identify differences in heart attack hospitalizations by age, gender, and race/ethnicity.
  • Determine populations in need of health interventions.
  • Facilitate research into the role of environmental factors in heart disease.

Risk Factors

Heart attacks occur in people of all ages, but some are more likely than others to have a heart attack. The likelihood of having a heart attack is based partly on risk factors. Established risk factors for heart disease can be divided between those that can be modified and those that cannot. Heredity (genetics) and age are examples of risk factors that are not modifiable. Public health is primarily concerned with modifiable risk factors.

Modifiable risk factors include high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol, cigarette smoking, physical inactivity, diabetes, obesity, dietary factors and environmental tobacco smoke. Alcohol use and stress also contribute to heart disease. Investigators also have shown relationships between air pollutants and the increased risk of heart attack and heart disease.

There is a misperception that heart disease is a man's illness. While men are at greater risk, heart disease takes a considerable toll on women too. As women approach menopause, they lose the protective effect of estrogen. After menopause, their risk of heart disease continues to rise with age. Recent surveys have shown that women are more concerned with breast cancer than with heart disease. However, the death rate for heart disease is nearly three times as high as that of breast cancer for both white and black women. Women need to be made aware of their risk for heart disease so that they can take steps to reduce its occurrence.

Visit Risk Factors and Coronary Heart Disease on the American Heart Association's Web site for more information about risk factors.

Heart Attack Prevention

Studies have shown that people can reduce their risk of heart attack by modifying their behavior. By quitting smoking, getting regular exercise and improving nutrition, people lower their blood pressure, cholesterol and reduce obesity. This also lowers a person's risk for heart disease and stroke.

Quit smoking

Smoking is the single largest contributor to the risk of having a heart attack. In fact, smokers are twice as likely to have a heart attack than are nonsmokers, and they are between two- and four-times more likely to experience sudden death. Exposure to environmental tobacco smoke in the home and at the workplace also increases the risk of heart disease. Within three years after quitting, the risk of death from heart disease for people who smoke a pack a day or less is almost the same as for people who never smoked.

Work with your doctor to lower cholesterol

High cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease, especially when other risk factors are present. Having a total blood cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL or lower is considered desirable. Healthy adults ages 20 and over should have a cholesterol screening once every five years. Those with other risks for heart disease, such as smoking, obesity, diabetes, or previous heart attack or stroke, may need more frequent monitoring. High cholesterol can be controlled through changing your diet, increased physical activity and with the use of medications.

Work with your doctor to lower your blood pressure

High blood pressure increases the heart's workload, causing it to enlarge and weaken. It increases the risk for a number of other diseases. When other risk factors are present, the risk from high blood pressure increases several times over. High blood pressure can be controlled through proper diet, losing excess weight, regular exercise, restricting salt intake, and through the use of antihypertensive medications.

Increase physical activity

The Surgeon General recommends people of all ages to include a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity of moderate intensity most days of the week. As a rule of thumb, any exercise that makes you breathe hard and your heart beat rapidly should provide this benefit. Recent studies show that even modest levels of low-intensity exercise provide increased cardiovascular fitness. These activities include walking for pleasure, gardening, housework, and dancing.

Maintain a healthy diet

There is evidence that plant foods play a role in preventing heart disease. Plant foods provide dietary fiber that help lower blood cholesterol and antioxidants that help in lipoprotein oxidation. On the other hand, the consumption of saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, and red meat have all been shown to increase the incidence of heart disease.

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