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The Facts on Heart Attacks | Signs, Symptoms, Causes, Prevention

Medically Reviewed by

Your heart is surrounded with an intricate network of coronary arteries that supply blood, rich in oxygen, to the muscle deep within your chest.  When the arteries are suddenly blocked, stopping the flow of blood to the heart, the oxygen-deprived muscle is damaged and a heart attack occurs.

Each year, 500,000 Americans die from heart attacks.  That’s one every minute in this country.  While heart attacks may be sudden and intense, and appear to come without warning, the body may have actually been providing clues long before the cardiac event occurred.

The Signs—Know How To Read Them

Many people don’t recognize the signs of a heart attack until it’s too late.  Learning how to detect the symptoms of cardiac distress could save your life—or the life of a loved one.

Signs and symptoms include:

Angina:  Sometimes mistaken as indigestion or heartburn, angina involves pressure or discomfort in the center of the chest.  This can also present as heaviness or numbness, tightness, pressure, burning, aching or squeezing.  Some individuals report feeling a sensation of fullness as well.  These symptoms may be intermittent leading up to a heart attack.

Discomfort or Pain in the Upper Body:  Many people experience discomfort or pain in the upper regions of the body, such as the back, neck, jaw, shoulder or stomach.  The sensations may come and go several times before or during an actual cardiac event however.

Shortness of Breath and Fatigue:  These may be signs there is stress on the heart that can begin months before a heart attack occurs.  Sometimes this may be combined with chest pain or discomfort as well.

Excessive Sweating or “Breaking Out in a Cold Sweat”:  When your heart works harder to pump blood through clogged arteries, your body reacts by sweating to maintain a lower temperature.  This can be an indication of an impending heart attack.

Nausea, Vomiting, Indigestion: Vomiting, indigestion, or nausea-like symptoms are common before a heart attack.  Many people dismiss these symptoms as normal because adults in middle age suffer many gastrointestinal difficulties in general.

Unfamiliar Dizziness:  This may be a signal that part of the heart muscle is dying due to heart attack.

Extreme Weakness or Anxiety:  Feelings of extreme fatigue or weakness within the body, or anxiety may actually precede a heart attack.  (A lack of oxygen due to heart disease may account for feelings of anxiety).  

Rapid or Irregular Heartbeat:  Weeks, even months before a heart attack occurs, a sudden, rapid or irregular heartbeat may begin to present in individuals at risk.

Differences Between Men and Women—While both genders will suffer from chest pain and discomfort, women are more likely to experience other symptoms such as upper body pain, nausea, and shortness of breath.

Stress Yourself—Stress Your Heart

Everyone on the planet experiences stress.  A small amount is necessary to motivate us to make changes in our lives and react properly to our environment.  Too much stress can cause a whole host of medical problems however.  These may include stomach problems such as, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and ulcers, or migraines and neck aches.  While each of us may experience tension in different ways, stress that has not been appropriately dealt with can boil over and can contribute to heart disease that may lead to heart attack.

What’s the connection?—Prolonged or sudden stress leads to physiological changes in the body.  These may include:

Reduced Blood Flow To The Heart: This causes the heart to beat irregularly and may promote blood clotting.  If you have plaque built up in the arteries already, you may experience chest pain.  Over a prolonged period, the lining of the blood vessels can become damaged making them more susceptible to atherosclerosis.

High Blood Pressure:  The “fight or flight response” that is triggered by stressful situations, causes adrenaline and cortisol to flood the body.   These hormones make the heart beat faster, constricting blood vessels to move more blood to the body’s core.  This in turn, raises blood pressure.

High blood pressure may create conditions that lead to a heart attack.  It can cause scarring in the arteries that fill up with plaque.  These become prone to blood clots that may block the flow of blood to the heart.  The heart arteries may become thicker and harder as a result of high blood pressure as well.  When the blood supply to the heart is cutoff, a heart attack occurs.  The part of the heart that is oxygen-starved begins to die.  The longer the coronary arteries remain blocked, the greater the damage to the heart muscle.

High Cholesterol:  During times of high stress the brain’s hypothalamus generates cortisol and adrenaline for instant energy.  When cortisol produces more sugar than the body can use, the excess gets converted to fatty acids and cholesterol that remain in the blood. Too much LDL (bad) cholesterol can accumulate in the artery walls, preventing blood to flow freely to the heart.  When a blockage occurs, a heart attack results.

Obesity—The Weight of the Matter

About 70% of Americans are either overweight or obese.  This puts them at great risk for many health conditions including heart attacks.  Obese individuals may have higher cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and type-II diabetes.  While each of these conditions alone can be a contributing factor to heart attack, together, they increase the chances greatly.

You are considered obese if your body weight is 20% more than it should be, or if your Body Mass Index is at 30 or above.

A large waist, (greater than 35 inches for women, or 40 inches for men) in addition to a high BMI puts individuals at an even greater risk for a heart attack.


  • Raises blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  • Lowers “good” HDL cholesterol
  • Increases blood pressure
  • Induces type II diabetes
  • Increases risk for heart disease and harms the blood vessel system

According to the American Heart Association, a BMI of 30 or more is considered obese and should be treated.

Lower Your Blood Pressure—Lower Your Risk for Heart Attack

Roughly two-thirds of adults over the age of 65 have high blood pressure.  Levels ranging above 140/90 mmHg are considered high.  Blood pressure between 120/80 mmHg and 139/89 mmHg is considered prehypertension.

High blood pressure can damage the arteries causing them to thicken and harden over time.  Because they can become prone to blood clotting, the heart is at higher risk for heart attack.      

How To Lower Blood Pressure On Your Own

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Adopt a sensible eating plan, low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Get plenty of physical exercise.
  • Achieve activity goals by walking in place or driving whenever possible, doing chores, shopping, and errands.
  • Reduce sodium intake.  Add spices such as garlic and onion to flavor food instead.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation.  Alcohol adds calories to the diet and also raises blood pressure.
  • Use Prescription drugs as directed.  Follow physician’s specific instructions
  • Adopt healthy lifestyle changes in addition to medication.




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