Reduce your risk of heart attack

HEART attack is one of the most treacherous diseases as it strikes anytime—in the office, while attending a party, or even while resting at home.

“A heart attack usually occurs when a blockage in a coronary artery, which supply the heart with oxygen and nutrients, severely restricts or cuts off the blood supply to a region of the heart,” The Merck Manual of Medical Information explains.  “If the supply is cut off or greatly reduced for more than a few minutes, heart tissue dies.”

Myocardial infarction or acute myocardial infarction, as heart attack is known in medical parlance, results from the interruption of blood supply to a part of the heart, causing heart cells to die.

A heart attack occurs when one or more of your coronary arteries become blocked. “Over time, a coronary artery can narrow from the buildup of various substances, including cholesterol [atherosclerosis],” the Mayo Clinic explains. This condition, known as coronary artery disease, causes most heart attacks.


According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the plaques can rupture during a heart attack and spill cholesterol and other substances into the bloodstream. “A blood clot forms at the site of the rupture,” it says. “If large enough, the clot can completely block the flow of blood through the coronary artery.”

Another cause of a heart attack is a spasm of a coronary artery that shuts down blood flow to part of the heart muscle. “Use of tobacco and of illicit drugs, such as cocaine, can cause a life-threatening spasm,” the Mayo Clinic points out. “A heart attack can also occur due to a tear in the heart’s artery [spontaneous coronary artery dissection].”

Tell-tale signs

Are there tell-tale signs that a person will know that he’s experiencing a heart attack?  Yes, according to the Merck manual.  It says that about two out of three people who have heart attacks experience intermittent chest pain, shortness of breath, or fatigue a few days beforehand.  The episodes of pain may become more frequent even after less and less physical exertion.  “Such unstable angina may culminate in a heart attack,” the Merck manual warns. 

Generally, the most recognizable symptom is pain in the middle of the chest that may spread to the back, jaw, or left arm.  According to the ADAM Medical Encyclopedia, the pain can be severe or mild.  It can feel like: a tight band around the chest, bad indigestion, something heavy sitting on your chest and squeezing or heavy pressure. The pain usually lasts longer than 20 minutes.

“The pain of a heart attack is similar to the pain of angina but is generally more severe, lasts longer, and isn’t relieved by rest or nitroglycerin,” the Merck manual states.  Angina is a suffocating, choking pain, usually used in reference to angina pectoris, which is felt in the chest. The pain if felt or brought on by exercise and relieved by rest, and occurs when the blood supply to the heart muscle is inadequate.

Other symptoms of a heart attack include a feeling of faintness and a heavy pounding of the heart. Irregular heartbeats may seriously interfere with the heart’s pumping ability or may cause the heart to stop pumping effectively (cardiac arrest), leading to a loss of consciousness or even death.

During a heart attack, a person may become restless, sweaty and anxious and may experience a sense of impending doom.  The lips, hands or feet may turn slightly blue.  An elderly person may become disoriented.

“A heart attack is a medical emergency,” the Merck manual says.  “Half of the deaths from heart attack occur in the first three to four hours after symptoms begin.  The sooner treatment begins, the better the chances of survival.  Anyone having symptoms that might indicate a heart attack should get prompt medical attention.”

Improving odds

Don’t die of a heart attack. In fact, you can improve your odds against it. “Your risk of having a heart attack depends on factors that influence fatty plaque buildup in your coronary artery walls, formation of artery-clogging blood clots and the strength of the heart muscle itself,” an article published by Reader’s Digest notes.  “Controlling these factors can significantly reduce your risk.”

• Stress: More heart attacks and other cardiovascular events occur on Mondays than any other day of the week. This “Monday cardiac phenomenon” has long been believed to be related to work stress.

Two recent studies shed light on the persistent link between stress and sudden heart attacks.  In one, a group of German researchers found that as your stress level rises, so do your levels of disease-promoting white blood cells. This can lead to plaque rupture and myocardial infarction

The other study found that stress hormones cause the dispersal of bacterial biofilms from the walls of your arteries. This dispersal can allow plaque deposits to suddenly break loose, triggering a heart attack.

To reduce risk: A warm—not hot—bath helps reduce stress by increasing peripheral circulation and relaxing muscles, which causes a calming effect, The Doctors Book of Home Remedies says.  When sex is good, it’s very good for easing stress.  Get a pet; studies show that when people pet an animal, stress drop almost immediately. Press your head.  Have a good cry.

• High blood pressure: If you have high blood pressure, you are more likely to develop coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis). “Coronary artery disease is the buildup of plaque or fatty matter in the walls of the coronary arteries,” the Cleveland Clinic Foundation explaines.  “Over time, the build-up causes the arteries to become narrow. As the artery narrows, less blood can flow through to the heart, and the flow may become completely blocked. The hardened surface of the artery can also cause small blood clots to form.”

Damaged arteries cannot deliver enough oxygen to other parts of the body. “For this reason, high blood pressure can also lead to brain and kidney damage,” the Ohio-based foundation adds.

To reduce risk: Limit alcohol, which have a direct hypertensive effect on the body; watch salt intake, since salt increases blood pressure; and reduce stress through exercise or relaxation techniques. 

“If these steps don’t work,” the Reader’s Digest feature says, “medication becomes necessary.  Once blood pressure is lowered, further damage to arteries is minimized or stopped.”

• High cholesterol levels: Your body makes cholesterol, and you also get it when you eat eggs, meats and dairy products. When you have more than your body needs, cholesterol can cause plaque to build up in your arteries. This thick, hard plaque can clog your arteries like a blocked pipe.

“If there is a clog in a coronary artery, your heart gets too little blood and oxygen,” WebMD says.  “Without enough oxygen, your heart becomes weak and damaged. If the plaque breaks open, a blood clot may form on top of the buildup, further blocking blood flow. Or, a blood clot can break off and flow to an artery in another part of the body. If a clot completely blocks an artery feeding your heart, you have a heart attack.”

To reduce risk: “Limit saturated fat—found in meat and dairy foods—and replaces it with monounsaturated fat; consume lots of fruits, vegetables, beans and grains,” the Reader’s Digest suggests.  “Cholesterol-lowering medications may be needed.”

 Obesity: This is a risk factor for fatal heart attacks, even for people who do not have the conditions normally associated with cardiovascular disease, according to Bill Hendrick in article published by WebMd Health News.

He based this statement from a study done by the University of Glasgow in Scotland, which associated obesity with an increased risk of fatal heart attacks. 

“We already knew that being obese meant you had a higher chance of having a heart attack,” says Dr. Jennifer Logue, one of the study researchers.  They thought high cholesterol and blood pressure were the reasons obese people had more heart attacks.  But their study has shown two new things: “obese, middle-aged men have a 60-percent increased risk of dying from a heart attack than nonobese middle-aged men, even after we cancel out any of the effects of cholesterol, blood pressure and other cardiovascular risk factors.”

This means, she says, that “obesity itself may be causing fatal heart attacks through a factor that we have not yet identified.”

To reduce risk: “Fluctuations in weight from repeated dieting may actually be worse for the heart than a stable, excessive weight,” Reader’s Digest claims.  “The only way to lose weight safely and permanently is to modify exercise and eating habits permanently.  Limit fats and eat lots of produce, grains and beans.”

• Diabetes: Both Type 1 and Type 2 forms tend to damage arteries and promote hypertension and harmful cholesterol levels.  A recent study showed that adults being treated for diabetes are just as likely to have a heart attack or stroke.

“Adults who need glucose-lowering drugs are at very high risk for heart attacks and strokes, and they need to be monitored closely for this and treated with appropriate medications,” study researcher Tina Ken Schramm told WebMD.

To reduce risk: “Controlling blood-sugar levels with diet, weight loss, exercise and, in some cases, medication, reduces coronary risk factors for Type 1 diabetics—and probably for Type 2 patients, as well,” the Reader’s Digest says.

• Smoking: Smokers are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack compared with people who have never smoked.  “Smoking damages the lining of your arteries, leading to a buildup of fatty material [atheroma], which narrows the artery,” the British Heart Foundation says.

According to the foundation, the carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood. This means the heart has to pump harder to supply the body with the oxygen it needs.

In addition, the nicotine in cigarettes stimulates the body to produce adrenaline, which makes the heartbeat faster and raises the blood pressure, making the heart work harder.  Blood is more likely to clot, which increases the risk of having a heart attack.

To reduce risk: Studies have found that people who have stopped smoking for at least five years have the same heart-attack risk as people who never smoked.  Try to quit smoking before it’s too late.  If you fail, ask help from your doctor.

• Exercise: The Geneva-based World Health Organization believes that more than 60 percent of the global population is not sufficiently active. When people are inactive, this can lead to a host of metabolic changes in the body. Those are changes in the way the body works. Those changes can lead to things like increased fat tissue in the body, a higher resting heart rate, and a higher blood pressure in general. All those can increase a person’s chance of getting a heart attack.

To reduce risk: “Moderate exercise, such as walking, can help the average person lose weight faster than heavy workouts, because most people can keep going longer at a moderate pace—and thus burn more calories,” the Reader’s Digest says.  “With your doctor’s okay, build up to a program of 45-minute workouts four or five times a week—and include strength training, since the extra muscle it builds will burn calories faster.”

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