A heart attack, also known as myocardial infarction, is when blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked. The heart can’t get oxygen and begins to die. This can cause mild, severe, or lifelong issues, depending on how long the blood supply is cut off. A heart attack can be fatal.
There are two types of heart attacks:
- STEMI (ST-elevation myocardial infarction) heart attacks indicate a complete blockage of blood flow to the heart through a coronary artery. With this complete loss of blood flow, the full region of the heart dependent on the blood supply from that artery may die.
- Non-STEMI (Non-ST-elevation myocardial infarction) heart attacks are a partial blockage in a major coronary artery supplying the heart. This blockage damages a part of the heart wall.
What Causes a Heart Attack?
Heart attacks happen when blood flow through one or more coronary arteries is blocked. These blockages are most commonly caused by a narrowing or hardening of arteries. Coronary artery disease is the most common heart disease). This narrowing/hardening of arteries is caused by a build-up of cholesterol plaque on the inside of the arteries.
Heart attacks can also be caused by a coronary artery spasm, which causes temporary tightening of a coronary artery that stops blood flow. Causes of this are often unknown, but some recreational drugs can cause a spasm.
Can eating too much fat cause a heart attack?
Eating too much and the wrong kinds of fats (i.e., saturated and trans fats) may raise unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels and lower healthy HDL cholesterol levels. This can increase the risk of high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, stroke and heart attack.
Are heart attacks hereditary?
Heart attack itself is not hereditary. However, coronary artery disease, which leads to stroke, heart failure, and heart attack, can run in the family. Genetics can also influence the risk of heart disease.
Can high blood pressure cause a heart attack?
High blood pressure, when left undetected or controlled, can lead to a heart attack. High blood pressure damages arteries that then can become blocked and prevent blood flow to the heart.
Can anxiety cause a heart attack?
Anxiety levels that are too low or too high do appear to worsen heart disease for those who already have it, which can contribute to a heart attack.
Can strenuous exercise cause a heart attack?
Overall, physical activity improves heart health. That said, there are some risks to your heart if you have done inadequate training before doing high-intensity exercise. Talk to your doctor and medical professionals if you intend to begin strenuous exercise to build a training program that is appropriate for you. If you experience chest pain, pressure or severe shortness of breath when you exercise, speak with your doctor before continuing.
Can a lack of sleep cause a heart attack?
Lack of sleep, or insufficient sleep, can contribute to problems with blood pressure, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and heart attack.
Can sleep apnea cause a heart attack?
Untreated sleep apnea can lead to many conditions and health concerns, including a heart attack.
Can emotional stress cause a heart attack?
Stress can’t directly cause a heart attack. However, stress can lead to high blood pressure or impact unhealthy lifestyle habits like smoking and diet, which are risk factors for a heart attack.
How Can You Prevent a Heart Attack?
Heart attacks are often a result of heart disease, so taking steps to prevent or delay heart disease can help in prevention. Habits like eating healthy, being active, reducing stress, limiting alcohol and living a smoke-free lifestyle can support heart health.
Adults should aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in periods of 10 minutes or more.
That said, talk to your doctor before you start being active if you have been diagnosed with coronary artery disease, haven’t been active in a while, or have other diseases that affect your heart, lungs or metabolism. Medical professionals can work to ensure the level of activity is appropriate for you.
A healthy diet is one of the best ways to fight heart disease and the risk of a heart attack. A healthy diet can help control risks such as cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes and being overweight.
Are there vitamins that help prevent a heart attack?
There isn’t clear evidence yet that vitamins reduce the risk of heart disease and heart attack. However, no vitamin will prevent heart disease development if the other risk factors (i.e., poor diet, smoking, high cholesterol, etc.) aren’t controlled as well.
Not getting enough sleep can increase the risk of heart attack, among other things. So, having good sleep hygiene and getting those seven to nine hours of good quality sleep is good for your overall health, including your heart health.
Occasional stress is okay, but chronic stress can increase blood pressure and potentially affect heart health, so learning ways to reduce stress is important to healthy living.
Having more than 3 drinks a day for men may contribute to high blood pressure, which can damage arteries that can then become blocked and lead to a heart attack. Men should not drink more than 3 drinks in one sitting, drink no more than 15 drinks a week, and take at least two days off a week.
Commonly asked questions
Can aspirin help reduce the damage or severity of a heart attack?
If taken daily, aspirin’s anti-clotting functionality can help prevent a first or subsequent heart attack. However, Taking aspirin daily is not recommended for those who have not had a stroke or been diagnosed with heart disease. Speak to your doctor before taking aspirin daily.
If taken during a heart attack, aspirin slows clotting and decreases the size of the forming clot.
How can you stop a heart attack?
At the first signs of a heart attack, call 9-1-1 and seek emergency medical treatment. Stay on the phone, and the emergency operator will instruct you what to do. This could include taking 1 adult-strength aspirin or 2-4 low-dose aspirin while you wait for an ambulance.
What do you do if someone has a heart attack?
At the first signs of a heart attack, call 9-1-1 and seek emergency medical treatment.
What is the common age for heart attacks?
You are at higher risk of heart disease and a heart attack the older you are. People aged 65 and older are more likely to suffer a heart attack than younger people.
Can you have a heart attack with normal blood pressure?
Blood pressure doesn’t accurately predict a heart attack, as blood pressure doesn’t always indicate a heart-related problem. Instead, consider the overall symptoms of a heart attack.
How many people die of heart attacks each year?
In 2019, 189 people per 100,000 Canadians died from major cardiovascular disease.
Can you have sleep problems after having a heart attack?
If you have had surgery following a heart attack, the procedure will have helped the heart adequately pump oxygen throughout the body and may give you more energy for activity. However, this new energy can also lead to sleep problems. Pain and discomfort from healing, or worries about your condition, can also throw off sleep.
Work with your medical professionals to reestablish good sleep hygiene during your recovery from a heart attack.
Signs & Symptoms
The most common symptom of heart attack is chest pain or discomfort. That said, some people won’t experience it at all or experience it mildly.
Some other signs and symptoms of a heart attack include:
- Chest discomfort (e.g., pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain, burning or heaviness)
- Sweating, upper body discomfort (i.e., neck, jaw, shoulder, arms, back)
- Feeling nauseated
- Shortness of breath and light-headedness.
Symptoms may not be sudden or severe, and some people may experience just one of the above symptoms, while others may experience a combination.
What does a mini heart attack feel like?
A mini heart attack happens when there is a temporary blockage in the coronary arteries.
Symptoms can be short-lived and mild and include:
- Chest pain or pressure in the chest
- Pain in the throat that can be confused with indigestion or GERD
- Shortness of breath
- Discomfort in the upper back, jaw, neck, stomach and arms
- Lightheadedness or nausea
- Cold sweats
Does heart attack pain come and go?
Yes, the symptom of chest discomfort can come and go.
Does heart rate increase during a heart attack?
Heart rate may change during a heart attack, or it might not. Having a fast heart rate is not necessarily a sign of a heart attack.
If you are taking medications already that slow your heart rate, your heart rate may even remain at a slower pace during a heart attack.
Can heart attack symptoms last for months?
Chest pain or heart attack symptoms that last for weeks or months are unlikely to be a heart attack.
Which arm hurts during a heart attack?
Pain or discomfort in the arms, particularly the left arm, can be a sign of heart attack.
Is burping a sign of a heart attack?
People may often dismiss symptoms of heart attack as gas or indigestion. However, upper-middle abdomen discomfort, which includes burping, belching and feelings of indigestion, can be a sign of heart attack.
At the first signs of a heart attack, call 9-1-1 and seek emergency medical treatment. Stay on the phone, and the emergency operator will instruct you what to do. This could include taking 1 adult-strength aspirin or 2-4 low-dose aspirin while you wait for an ambulance. Sit or lie down, and stop all activity.
At the hospital, treatment will begin immediately to restore blood flow. This could include aspirin or other medication to prevent blood clots, medication to break up clots, and medication to decrease the workload in your heart and ease the pain. They may also run tests and determine if surgery or other treatment is required.
Subsequent treatment for a heart attack could include medication, surgery and changes to lifestyle. Work with your doctor to discuss treatment and what is best for you.
How long does a heart attack last if untreated?
Heart attack symptoms can vary in intensity, duration and onset. Each could last a few minutes to a few hours and appear slowly or be sudden and intense. But, if left untreated, heart attack symptoms can lead to serious complications or death as more damage occurs to the heart, so urgent treatment is highly important.
Chest pain for several weeks or months is unlikely to be a heart attack.
When you leave the hospital after a heart attack, ask for the contact information of the medical professional you should call with questions or concerns. When you get home from the hospital, you may feel tired for a while. You will also need to adjust to a new medication routine.
Look to make an appointment with your family doctor within 1-2 weeks of leaving the hospital. Begin working with your doctor to establish new routines for a healthy lifestyle, including diet, exercise, rest, and even family roles. Continue to be involved in your daily routine, but spread activities out and rest if you are tired, and ask for support from loved ones when needed.
For more helpful insights into returning to your daily routine, work and physical activity, among other things, visit the Heart & Stroke Foundation’s website.
Seek medical help if you have any worrying symptoms.  And, importantly, work towards preventing another heart attack by taking your medications, attending follow-up appointments, participating in cardiac rehabilitation, seeking support where needed, and managing your risk factors.
How to help someone else cope after a heart attack?
You can support your loved ones by:
- Asking them what they need and how you can help them (i.e., understanding their recovery plan) in consultation with their medical professionals.
- Getting information from their health care providers on helping the person work towards a healthier lifestyle.
- Educate yourself on heart attack symptoms, so you can support them if it happens again.
- Providing emotional support by being there to talk or encouraging them to seek counselling if they’d prefer to speak with a professional.
- Being aware of your own emotions and taking care of yourself.
Do you have to make changes to your lifestyle after a heart attack?
You will likely experience some changes to your lifestyle following a heart attack. This could include lifestyle changes in eating, activity, smoking, drinking alcohol, and managing stress. Other things to consider are a new work routine and your ability to drive or travel. Speak with your doctor to establish a routine and lifestyle that works for you and encourages your recovery.
How soon after a heart attack can you drink alcohol?
Check with your doctor for advice on how much and how soon you can begin drinking alcohol again. If you have been diagnosed with other conditions or have just had surgery, your medical professionals may recommend avoiding alcohol altogether. It’s also important to understand how alcohol might react with your medications.
Should you exercise after a heart attack?
Speak with your doctor and healthcare team for specific instructions on exercise given your situation. They will consider the condition of your heart after your heart attack, your previous level of activity and your current level of activity to advise on exercise levels and returning to physical activity safely.
What are the after-heart attack exercise guidelines?
These guidelines might refer to the FITT principles: frequency, intensity, time and type. These guidelines will help you work with your medical team to set a workout routine for your goals and current fitness level and measure your progress. They can be found in this helpful guide from the Heart & Stroke Foundation.
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