Heart Attack: Causes & How to Recognize It

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States – that’s 1 in 3 deaths. Every 34 seconds, someone dies of heart disease, and every 40 seconds someone is getting a heart attack. This means, therefore, that about 1.5 million heart attacks occur in our country every year. 20% of heart attacks are called ‘silent heart attacks,’ as people are not aware they happened. That’s why it’s important to know what can cause a heart attack and how you can recognize one in yourself and your loved ones. The better informed we are, the sooner we can intervene and prevent serious damage or death.

Myocardial infarction as the person suffering from a heart attack due to clogged coronary artery as a cardiac emergency symbol with 3D illustration elements.

Causes of a Heart Attack

Before we explain what the most common reasons for heart attacks are, it’s good to know what it entails. When the blood flow – with fresh oxygen – via the arteries to the heart is blocked or extremely reduces, part of the heart receives not enough blood, and if this is not dealt with, the heart muscle can suffer severe damage or even stop beating, which can eventually lead to death. The medical term for heart attack is myocardial infarction. In most cases the reason is a CAD – coronary artery disease -, other common causes are severe spasms or sudden contractions of an artery that can stop the blood flow to the heart muscle. But how is this possible?

Risk Factors

CAD is a disease in which the major blood vessels – coronary arteries – that provide blood to the heart become clogged. The thing that clogs the coronary arteries is called deposits of cholesterol or plaque. Moments before you have a heart attack, the following happens: one – or more – of these plaques in the coronary arteries burst, creating a blood clot, which blocks the blood from flowing to the heart, eventually causing you to have a heart attack. You have an increased risk of CAD if you:

  • Smoke
  • Eat a lot of fat
  • Suffer from diabetes
  • Have high cholesterol
  • Have high blood pressure
  • Are overweight or obese
  • (Mis)use drugs
  • Have lack of oxygen in your blood

First things first, it’s good to know that dramatically grabbing your heart and slowly collapsing, as you see in the movies or series, doesn’t always have to happen. A heart attack is called a “silent killer” for a reason. As you could read on the previous page, anyone can be affected by a heart attack. Young, old, male, female, white, brown, and everything in between; it doesn’t matter. What does make a difference is how you can recognize it…

The women have a heart condition and go to the hospital urgently. People with a heart problem

Heart attack Symptoms in Women

Women generally suffer from different symptoms than men. Therefore, it is important to list the symptoms by gender. Often, women write off their symptoms as something much less severe, think, as heartburn, the flu, or getting older, but please pay attention if you – or a loved one – suffer from one or more of the above-mentioned symptoms, call 9-1-1 as soon as possible. You can recognize a heart attack in women by the following symptoms:

  • Paleness or clammy skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart flutters
  • Cold sweat
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Pain in the shoulder, neck, (left)arm, jaw, or back
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Abdominal pain
  • Chest pain which is constant or comes in waves

Please note that symptoms may vary for everyone. Someone may suffer from 1 symptom, but another may have all the symptoms. In case you were told that everyone suffers from severe chest pain – when it feels like an elephant is sitting on your chest -, you were partly right. It does signal that you may have a heart attack, but not everyone has to suffer from this.

You’ll that the warning signs of a heart attack in men are quite similar to those in women, but there is a big difference. Men often only experience uncomfortable or painful chest pains that last for several minutes or come and go in waves, whereas women need not experience chest pain at all or have chest pain in combination with the symptoms mentioned on the previous page.

health, medicine, people and cardiology concept - close-up of hand with cardiogram on small red heart

Heart Attack Symptoms in Men

Of course, this does not say that men may experience different symptoms. So pay attention to the following warning signs:

  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Pain in the shoulder, neck, arm(s), jaw, or back
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath

How Does This Chest Discomfort Feel?

Chest discomfort is a pretty vague term, so what exactly do we mean by this? Often people who have (had) a heart attack describe this as if an elephant is sitting on their chest, but this doesn’t have to be the case. It can also feel uncomfortable or like someone is squeezing your chest all the time. Surely this symptom is the most common warning sign, so if you suffer from this or hear someone complaining about it and notice it won’t go away? Then call 9-1-1 as soon as possible. The chances are very high that you or that person is having a heart attack. This is the only thing you can do, someone suffering from a heart attack needs to be treated in the hospital. In case someone collapses and stops breathing, start CPR and call 9-1-1.

Can I Prevent It?

A healthy lifestyle, especially when you’re getting older or has a chronic medical condition, is the best way to prevent a heart attack. This means following a healthy and varied diet, quitting smoking, and keeping a close eye on your blood pressure and making sure it is healthy. In addition, it is important – especially as an older woman – that you visit your healthcare provider regularly to get checked for a heart attack.