Table of Contents
- What is a Heart Attack?
- Types of Heart Attacks
- Heart Attack Risk Factors
- Heart Attack Prevention Strategies
- Prevention Strategies Based on Age
Many are not aware of their own risk factors for having a heart attack, or how to control these in order to prevent one.
Understanding how to keep your heart healthy is perhaps one of the most important health topics for us all.
Because your heart is so crucial to your overall health and wellness, taking care of it should be a top priority, beginning when you are young.
What is a Heart Attack?
The main function of your heart is to pump oxygenated blood to your body’s tissues, organs, and muscles while circulating depleted blood back through your lungs to pick up more oxygen.
Every part of your body needs oxygen, especially your heart.
When the flow of blood to your heart muscle is significantly reduced or completely cut off, you are having a heart attack.
Heart attacks occur for a few different reasons, most of which involve the narrowing or restricting of the arteries that deliver blood to your heart from your lungs.
Atherosclerosis is the slow buildup of cholesterol, fat, and other compounds on the walls of your coronary arteries.
This buildup is called plaque.
Over time, these substances in your blood collect in your arteries, slowing the passage of blood as the artery becomes narrower.
Think of it like the plumbing in your kitchen.
As a pipe becomes more and more blocked, water flows more slowly through it.
Eventually, the pipe becomes so clogged that nothing else will pass through.
When this slowness results in prolonged lack of oxygen and other life-saving nutrients to your heart, essentially starving your heart of what it needs to survive, you have ischemia.
Ischemia that results in death or damage to part of your heart’s muscles is called myocardial infarction (MI), otherwise known as a heart attack.
Unfortunately, the heart attack is common in the US, with one occurring every 40 seconds.
When your heart muscle is deprived of oxygen, it suffers damage.
The extent of your heart injury will depend on how much heart tissue does not receive oxygen, and for how long it is deprived.
When heart muscle is damaged by a heart attack, a scar forms.
The healing process after a heart attack can take several weeks, depending on many variables.
While the heart is a very tough organ, scar tissue will never be as strong as the original heart muscle, so you will always be at an increased risk for another heart attack or additional cardiovascular problems after you experience one.
With proper treatment and by making important changes to your lifestyle, though, you can limit future damage and thus hopefully prevent further problems.
Types of Heart Attacks
There is more than one type of heart attack, and depending on which type you experience, your recovery will likely be very different.
Some people confuse a heart attack with cardiac arrest, which is when the heart suddenly stops beating.
Cardiac arrest can occur for many different reasons, all of which involve the electrical impulses that make your heart beat regularly (your heart rhythm).
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A heart attack is caused by a circulatory problem.
While a heart attack can cause cardiac arrest, many people who have a heart attack never experience this phenomenon.
The most dangerous and deadly type of heart attack is called an ST-segment Elevation Myocardial Infarction, or STEMI.
When a coronary artery becomes completely blocked, depriving a large portion of the heart of necessary oxygen, this is known as STEMI.
This type of heart attack is sometimes referred to as a widowmaker or massive heart attack because it can be fatal.
A STEMI’s symptoms are what we often associate with a heart attack, including chest pain or discomfort, tightness or pressure in the chest, pain in the arm, back, neck, and/or jaw, and shortness of breath.
Those experiencing a STEMI may also have nausea, be lightheaded, experience anxiety, or feel clammy.
If you are experiencing these symptoms, you should call 911 immediately to seek medical help.
Delaying help can mean the difference between life and death, so it is best to seek it immediately.
A Non-ST-segment Elevation Myocardial Infarction, or NSTEMI, differs from a STEMI in that the blood flow is not completely blocked, but is instead severely restricted.
While this type of attack is milder and causes less damage than a STEMI, an NSTEMI is still serious and will damage your heart.
Seek medical care if you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, as they are the same for both types of attacks.
While symptoms of NSTEMI may not be as severe, if you notice them, seeking help can prevent further damage.
Occasionally, you can have a heart attack with no symptoms.
Sometimes referred to as a Silent Heart Attack, these are still dangerous and cause potentially permanent damage to your heart muscle.
Your heart muscle will always suffer damage when it is deprived of oxygen.
Seeing a doctor regularly can help you know if you have had a Silent Heart Attack.
If you have any type of heart attack, you are at an increased risk of having another attack or of developing other complications.
These include arrhythmia, heart failure, and valve problems.
Arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, happens when scar tissue from an attack prevents electrical signals from controlling your heart beat properly.
When your heart is so damaged and weak it can no longer pump enough blood, you are in heart failure.
Valve damage means blood may not flow in the proper direction due to damage from an attack.
Complications from a heart attack depend largely on how much damage has been done to the heart muscle, as well as the location of the damage.
In addition to medical complications, those who experience a heart attack are susceptible to mental health issues as well, particularly depression.
Surviving a heart attack is frightening and stressful.
For many, it is a life-changing experience.
Twenty percent of heart attack survivors develop some level of depression.
It is important to treat depression, like any medical complication, to ensure a healthy and full recovery.
Heart Attack Risk Factors
In order to prevent a heart attack or lower your risk, it is important for you to know your risk factors.
There are some that you cannot control, and others that are manageable through dietary and lifestyle choices.
By controlling or decreasing all those you can, you can lower your risk of a heart attack.
Some risk factors are beyond your control.
Older people have a higher risk of having a heart attack than younger people.
Men have a higher risk of having a heart attack than women, and men are more likely to have an attack earlier in their lives.
If your parents had heart disease, you are more likely to develop it and are therefore at risk for a heart attack.
Many races and ethnicities tend to have higher blood pressure, which means they are at higher risk.
If you have one or more of these risk factors that are beyond your control, it is even more important that you work to control the ones that you can.
Controllable risk factors for heart attack include smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, living a sedentary lifestyle, being overweight or obese, having Type 2 diabetes, living with an excessive amount of stress, drinking alcohol to excess, and eating unhealthy foods.
By managing your diet and exercise and making healthy lifestyle choices, you can lower your risk of a heart attack and lead a healthy life.
Heart Attack Prevention Strategies
While we cannot control factors like our age, race, or gender, it is possible to control many of the risks that make us more susceptible to a heart attack.
By adjusting your lifestyle and making healthy choices, you can keep your heart and body healthy to support long-term cardiovascular health.
The following are effective strategies that, when combined, will help your heart stay strong and your body combat the natural aging process.
If you are a smoker, your risk of heart attack and other problems is much higher.
Cigarette smoke causes many problems for your body and, when combined with other risk factors, exponentially increases your risk for heart attack.
The chemical compounds in tobacco (whether through smoking or using smokeless tobacco) damage your heart muscles, as well as your arteries and blood vessels.
This leads to atherosclerosis or plaque buildup, which can cause a heart attack.
In addition, carbon monoxide, which is present in cigarette smoke, takes the place of the oxygen in your blood which raises your blood pressure and pulse.
That means your heart is working much harder to provide your body with the necessary supply of oxygen.
Quitting smoking and/or using tobacco has very positive effects on your heart, and within one year of quitting, your risk of a heart attack is already significantly lower.
Regardless of how much you have smoked or used tobacco or for how long, quitting will have benefits for your heart.
Eat Healthy Foods
Fueling your body with heart-healthy foods is one of the best ways to protect against heart disease and prevent a heart attack.
The food and drink you ingest, along with your portion size, have effects on your blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and weight.
All of these influence how hard your heart works to pump blood to your body and can contribute to the buildup of plaque in your arteries.
Selecting foods with adequate nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and fiber is a wonderful strategy for preventing a heart attack.
Eating a variety of fruits, whole grains, vegetables, and low-fat proteins is a good first step to a healthy diet.
Limiting processed foods, sugar, and refined and fatty foods can help you achieve a healthy weight, as well as provide the right kind of fuel for your heart and body.
Type 2 diabetes raises your risk of developing heart disease and having a heart attack.
Managing your diabetes and controlling your blood sugar are important steps for reducing your risk of heart-related illness.
Eating a diet rich in whole, plant-based, and nutrient-dense foods can help you maintain a healthy blood sugar level.
Eating too much salt raises your blood pressure, which puts a strain on your heart.
Eating lots of processed foods and eating out, especially fast food, means you are eating a lot of salt.
Limiting your diet to 1500 mg of sodium per day, which is only about 2/3 of a teaspoon, will help you maintain a healthy blood pressure as well as reduce your risk of a heart attack and stroke.
Cholesterol and Triglycerides
Cholesterol and triglycerides are fatty compounds that can build up on the walls of your arteries and restrict blood flow.
Reducing the unhealthy cholesterol in the food you eat is a good first step toward slowing or halting that plaque buildup.
Combined with other risk factors, such as high blood pressure and being overweight, high cholesterol and triglyceride levels can significantly increase your risk of a heart attack.
By altering your diet, as well as making some of the other lifestyle choices discussed here to reduce your weight and increase your activity level, you can lower your cholesterol and triglyceride levels and protect your heart.
Increase Your Activity
When you are inactive or lead a sedentary lifestyle, your body has difficulty controlling your blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and weight.
Those who are sedentary are more likely to be overweight, to eat a less healthy diet, and to have other risk factors that contribute to heart disease.
By using your muscles regularly and engaging in aerobic exercise that strengthens your heart and lungs, you can reduce your risk of many other health issues, including having a heart attack.
Moderate exercise, the equivalent of walking briskly for about half an hour, should be a goal every day.
In addition, increasing your exertion to vigorous exercise for at least 75 minutes a week will also have a significant impact on your heart health.
Work toward adding resistance training two to three times a week to build muscle strength and add even more heart benefits.
If you have not exercised in some time, start slowly, as even small amounts of exercise have benefits for your heart.
Doing 30 minutes of exercise in shorter sessions in the course of your day is an option for those trying to build up stamina.
Engaging in everyday activities, such as cleaning, walking up the stairs, playing with your pets or family members, and working in the garden are all wonderful activities that increase your movement and help you avoid a sedentary life.
The more frequently and intensely you move and exercise, the greater the benefits for your heart.
Drink Alcohol in Moderation
Alcohol consumption can have varying effects on your heart, depending on the level at which you consume.
Too much alcohol increases your blood pressure, as well as raises your risk of stroke and cancer.
High amounts of alcohol or prolonged alcoholism contribute to depression, obesity, and other major causes of death.
When consumed in moderation, though, alcohol can have protective effects on your heart.
If you choose to drink, do so in moderate amounts, which means no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
Don’t Carry Extra Weight
Being overweight means your heart has to work harder to do its job.
When you are overweight or obese, your body has difficulty controlling your blood sugar and blood pressure.
If you are overweight, you are more likely to be sedentary.
If you are overweight and also have other risk factors, reducing your weight should be a top priority to help reduce your risk of a heart attack.
Those who carry excess body fat in the torso or around the waist are at even higher risk, as this visceral adipose tissue puts extra strain on your internal organs.
This extra body mass in your midsection increases your risk of death due to heart disease, as well as diabetes.
Losing just 5% of your body weight can have very significant effects on your overall health, including reducing your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is your body’s mechanism for repair and rejuvenation.
Without enough quality sleep, you may do harm to your overall health.
Most adults require around eight hours of sleep a night to feel fully recharged.
When you are tired, you are more likely to overeat or make unhealthy dietary choices to supplement your drained energy level.
When you are sleep-deprived, your body is in a state of inflammation, which can lead to additional problems with blood sugar and blood pressure.
Those who consistently do not sleep well are more likely to be overweight, suffer from depression, or exhibit other heart attack risk factors.
Setting a consistent sleep routine and creating an optimal sleep environment are both good strategies for helping you get adequate rest.
If you are concerned that you are still not able to sleep well, discuss this with your doctor, as you may have underlying issues, such as sleep apnea, and there may be treatments that can help you rest better.
When you are experiencing high levels of or prolonged stress, your body reacts in various ways.
Stress can lead to unhealthy coping strategies, such as overeating, drinking to excess, and smoking.
When you have other risk factors, living with stress can increase your risk of a heart attack, so learning to cope with or reduce your stress can be a helpful preventative strategy.
Seeking healthy strategies for managing stress, including meditation, exercise, and eliminating sources of stress, can have many positive impacts on your heart and body.
Visit Your Doctor Regularly
When you have one or more risk factors for heart attack or cardiovascular disease, it is important to see your doctor regularly.
Consistent visits to the doctor are necessary to monitor your physical wellbeing, including your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol levels, weight, and much more.
Your doctor can provide you with guidance on how to lower your risks, reduce levels that are too high, and make changes to your life that will keep you healthier over time.
If you have risk factors that are out of your control, such as a family history of heart disease, then it is even more important that you monitor your health with the help of your physician so that you can learn to control any other risk factors you may have that are preventable or controllable.
When you don’t see your doctor regularly, you may be unaware of other potential problems that could impact your heart health.
Consider Medications when Necessary
Even when you lead a healthy lifestyle, eat well, and exercise regularly, you still may need help to lower your risk of heart attack.
Medications and treatments can be effective for lowering blood pressure, reducing cholesterol, or maintaining healthy blood sugar levels while you are making lifestyle choices that can make these changes more permanent.
For some, medication is the only effective way to control certain conditions that put you at risk for a heart attack.
Working with your doctor and undergoing regular health screenings can help you lower your risk and control medical conditions that contribute to cardiovascular problems and disease.
Prevention Strategies Based on Age
The above strategies are things you can do at any age to lower your risk of having a heart attack.
It is always a good time to start taking better care of your heart.
Making smart choices about what you put into and what you do with your body will have long-lasting benefits not only for your heart but for your entire well-being.
During every decade of your life, though, you can benefit from a few simple steps to enjoy heart health.
In Your 20s
Young adulthood is a great time to start healthy habits that you can carry with you for years to come.
Being smart about your lifestyle choices early will keep you ahead of the game, giving you a leg up on heart health.
Find a doctor you trust and begin scheduling regular wellness exams.
Monitor your health to be sure you stay on top of possible risk factors.
Establish an active lifestyle that incorporates exercise regularly, and avoids sedentary behaviors.
You will be more likely to maintain these behaviors if you establish them early.
Don’t start smoking, or if you already do smoke, quit now.
The longer you wait, the harder it will become.
If you live with someone who smokes, help them to stop smoking, because secondhand smoke is dangerous, as well.
In Your 30s
This time in your life is usually focused on career and family.
Don’t forget to focus on your own health, as well.
This decade is a great time to make living healthily a part of your whole family’s routine.
Help your children establish heart-healthy habits early, get active with them, and be a role model of healthy eating habits.
Teach your kids to cook, and get them involved in supporting healthy choices in your household.
This is a great time also to learn more about your family’s history, so you can be aware of all the risk factors in your life.
As your responsibilities increase, this is a good time to learn to control stress in healthy ways to keep your heart attack risk low.
In Your 40s
If you have waited until midlife to focus on your heart health, all is not lost.
It is never too late to make healthy changes.
Doing so now can still provide benefits well into the future, so don’t think it is too late to start.
Midlife means your metabolism is likely to slow down, so watch your weight and make necessary changes to your diet and activity level so the number on the scale does not continue to rise.
This is also a good time to have your blood sugar checked.
If you’ve never done this before, doctors recommend a glucose check by age 45, then every three years after.
If you notice you are starting to snore at this stage of life, have yourself tested, or talk to your doctor about sleep apnea which can raise your risk of heart problems.
In Your 50s
As you age, so does your heart, so this stage of life is a great time to take extra care of this important organ.
And it’s easy to slip into unhealthy eating habits, so make sure your diet is full of whole foods, heart-healthy vegetables and fruits, high-fiber grains, and low-fat choices.
Learn the warning signs of stroke and heart attack, so you can be aware of what to watch for in yourself and your loved ones.
Symptoms often vary for women, so make sure you know the differences.
If you are being treated for any medical conditions, be sure to follow your treatment plan to control risk factors that raise your risk for heart attack.
In Your 60s and Beyond
One risk factor you cannot control is aging.
Older people are at higher risk for a heart attack, which is why it is even more important that you control all the risk factors you possibly can.
Monitor your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and other heart-related issues closely, and make adjustments as needed.
Remember that it is never too late to make healthy changes to your life, including in your 60s and beyond.
This is a good time to check for peripheral artery disease (PAD) with an ankle-brachial index test.
Plaque buildup in your lower extremities can cause cardiovascular disease and contribute to increased risk of a heart attack.
As you age, you need fewer calories, so be sure to monitor your weight and adjust your diet so as not to pack on extra pounds.
Excess weight means your heart is working harder.
Make adjustments to your exercise to accommodate changes in your body as a result of aging.
If you have already experienced a heart attack, you still have a good chance of living a full life after your recovery.
Following the guidelines here for living a heart-healthy life will help you recover if you have already experienced a cardiac problem.
Do not wait to make lifestyle changes, though, and get started making adjustments to your diet and activity as soon as you return home.
Remember, there is no time like the present.
Staying on top of medications and seeing your doctor regularly after a heart attack will be important as well, to monitor your progress, make adjustments to any medications you might be taking, and manage your risk factors.
If you are given new medications after a heart attack, be sure to learn about them and your schedule for taking them, as well as their possible side effects and interactions with other medications.
It is not unusual for some to experience mental health changes after a heart attack.
Talk with your doctor if you experience feelings of depression, anxiety, denial, or fear.
Your doctor can provide you with helpful information, resources, and possibly medication to assist you in coping emotionally with your new condition.
These new emotions can have a significant impact on your motivation to make lifestyle changes, your ability to work, your relationships with family and loved ones, and your overall recovery.
Regardless of your age, keeping your heart health in mind is always important.
While heart attacks are unusual in young people, they can happen, so don’t think to worry about your heart risk factors is something you need to consider later in life.
To prevent heart attack and other cardiovascular problems, having a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercises, and making sensible lifestyle choices will go a long way toward helping you lead a long, healthy life.