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    What Is a Heart Attack?

    Heart attacks are caused by heart disease, which is the number one cause of death among both men and women in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, every year in the United States roughly 785,000 people will have their first heart attack. And approximately 470,000 who have had a heart attack before will have another one.

    While much work needs to be done to prevent heart disease and heart attacks from happening in the first place, the good news is that heart attack treatment has advanced tremendously in the past 60 years. Based on data from an extensive, long-term study called the Framingham Heart Study, death from coronary artery disease (CAD) – the disease process behind heart attacks – dropped by 59 percent from 1950 to 1999. And in the ten years between 1997 and 2007, the death rate from CAD dropped another 26.3%. This dramatic drop in mortality from CAD is due to advances in medical therapy, including increased understanding of risk factors for CAD, pharmacologic treatment of CAD, and improved modes of opening blocked arteries.

    You may be someone who is recovering from a heart attack or someone who is concerned about your personal risk for a heart attack. Or you may be a caregiver who is helping a loved one who has heart disease. Regardless of your starting point, the information in this section can help you better understand what heart attacks are – their causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment – and what you will need for recovery and to lead a heart-healthy lifestyle moving forward.

    The Mechanics of a Heart Attack

    You may also hear heart attacks described by medical terms such as myocardial infarction (MI) or acute coronary syndrome (ACS). The latter, ACS, describes both a heart attack and unstable angina (chest pain), which is a warning sign that blood flow to your heart is being cut off.

    A heart attack results when a complete occlusion suddenly forms in the arteries that supply blood to your heart – the coronary arteries. Blockages are caused by a disease process throughout the arteries in your body called atherosclerosis, in which plaque – a fatty substance – builds up in the arteries. This plaque narrows the arteries, leaving less room for blood to flow. A plaque can be topped with a thin, fibrous cap that ruptures. With rupture, exposure of atherosclerotic debris to the bloodstream can cause platelets (a component of blood that assists with clotting) and red blood cells to collect at the site of the rupture, cutting off blood flow to the artery. Alternatively, part of the plaque may break off and flow downstream in the blood. This piece of plaque can then lodge in a narrowed portion of the artery and blood will begin to clot around it. This blood clot (thrombosis) can partially or completely cut off blood flow through the artery. When blood flow is cut off, this is called ischemia.

    Your heart is a muscle. Blood carries vital oxygen and nutrients to the heart muscle, and without blood, the heart muscle begins to die. That is why every second counts when it comes to heart attack treatment. An extensive blockage, especially in a major blood vessel, such as the left anterior descending artery, can cause a large heart attack. Large heart attacks that are not treated early and aggressively can lead to heart failure. The risk of death within five years of being diagnosed with certain types of heart failure can be 50 percent or more, worse than many forms of cancer.

    It is better to go to the hospital and learn that you are not having a heart attack than to stay home and have one. That’s because the consequences of an untreated heart attack are so great. If your symptoms persist for more than 15 minutes, you are at more risk that heart muscle cells will die. It is critical for you and your heart that you receive immediate medical attention. To receive the best care, you have about 90 minutes from the onset of the heart attack for an interventional cardiologist or surgeon to restore the flow of blood to the heart before critical heart tissue dies or is damaged.

    Read on for detailed information about the different types of heart attacks and their causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment . Also find questions you can ask your physician about heart attack, what you can do to increase your odds of surviving a heart attack, and what recovery from heart attack will involve.

    Know that today your chances of surviving a heart attack – and surviving it well – are greater than ever, and that patients and physicians are a team working together for heart health. Recognition of the symptoms of a heart attack and seeking prompt medical attention are crucial in improving one’s odds of surviving a heart attack, so the first and probably most important link in the battle against CAD is seeking PROMPT medical attention when there is any suspicion of a heart attack.

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    Diagnosing a Heart Attack

    Heart attack diagnosis can take place beginning at any one of several points: in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, in a hospital’s emergency room, or at the hospital after a heart attack has already taken place. The medical professionals who treat you at any of these stages will use symptom evaluation and tests to diagnose a heart attack. Learn more about the tests that are commonly used to diagnose a heart attack.

    Heart Attack Causes

    A heart attack is caused when blood flow through one or more of the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart is cut off. While blood flow can be blocked if the artery spasms and obstructs flow, for example, the majority of heart attacks are caused by blood clots (thrombosis) that form around ruptured plaques. A plaque is a build-up in the artery wall of a fatty material containing cholesterol, calcium, and other substances.

    Heart Attack Treatment

    The first phase of heart attack treatment will be emergency treatment designed to save your life and limit disabling damage to the heart muscle. After that, treatment will be focused on recovery and prevention of future heart attacks. This section can help you learn about the life-saving treatments that are used to stop heart attacks.

    Holidays Bring Highest Rates of Fatal Heart Attacks

    Of all times of the year to know the symptoms of a heart attack, Christmas and New Year’s Day may be the most important. That’s because research has shown that more people die from heart attack on these two holidays, plus the day after Christmas, than other days of the year.

    If a Heart Attack Strikes, Will You Recognize the Symptoms?

    Do you know the symptoms of a heart attack? Would you call 9-1-1 if you or someone you were with was experiencing the warning signs?

    Lifestyle Changes After a Heart Attack

    Surviving a heart attack is often a life-changing event. In addition to recovering from any procedures that were performed to stop and treat the heart attack, most patients will also face making lifestyle changes that are designed to target risk factors for heart disease and stop or slow the progress of disease. While making lifestyle changes is never easy, doing so after a heart attack is an important part of looking toward the future. Read this section for common lifestyle changes and how you can get support in making them.

    Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Heart Attack

    The questions in this section can help you talk to your physician about your individual risk for having a heart attack or about recovery and prevention if you have already had one. Print out the list and take it with you to your next doctor’s appointment.

    Recovering from a Heart Attack

    If you are a heart attack survivor, you are likely facing a number of emotions and fears, as well as physical aftereffects from the heart attack and from the very treatment that saved your life. The road to recovery may be long, but there are many medical professionals and support groups available to help you, and for those patients who take their medication as prescribed and take measures such as enrolling in a cardiac rehabilitation program, the prognosis is typically good.

    SecondsCount Heart Attack Survival Guide

    Know the symptoms of heart attack and take them seriously. Here’s a key thing to remember about a common misconception: Not all people with heart attacks experience chest pain. Be on the alert for all of the symptoms of heart attack. Learn them here.

    Symptoms of a Heart Attack

    It’s easy to delay action when a heart attack occurs for this simple reason: You may not think it’s a heart attack. Sudden, dramatic “Hollywood” heart attacks do occur. But a heart attack may also begin with mild pain or pressure in the chest. Recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack can help you know when to dial 911 for yourself or a loved one, and increase the odds of quickly having life-saving blood flow restored to the heart muscle.

    Types of Heart Attacks

    Not all heart attacks have the same symptoms or severity. Ultimately, the seriousness of the heart attack is judged by the amount of permanent damage to the heart muscle. This section discusses several types of heart attacks, as well as non-heart-related sources of chest pain.