Your heart is an amazing muscle. In an average lifetime your heart is likely to beat two and a half billion times,1 pumping blood to all your vital organs, keeping you alive. When that pumping is blocked or interrupted, a heart attack can occur.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with the exception of the COVID-19 years, heart attacks and heart disease are the leading causes of death in both men and women. Understanding the risk factors can help you prevent or reduce the chances of having one—and recognizing the symptoms and knowing what to do can help save your life or the life of another.

What causes heart attacks?

The most common cause of heart attacks is coronary artery disease. This is when your coronary arteries cannot carry enough oxygen-rich blood to your heart muscle. A waxy substance called plaque builds up inside your arteries, causing the arteries to narrow. The buildup of this plaque is called atherosclerosis. With a poor diet, smoking, lack of exercise, or family history, this can happen over many years, and it can block blood flow to parts of your heart muscle.

Eventually, an area of plaque can break open inside your artery. This causes blood clots to form on the plaque’s surface. If the clot becomes large enough, it can block blood flow to your heart. If the blockage isn’t treated quickly, a part of your heart muscle begins to die.

What is cardiac arrest?

Many people use heart attack and cardiac arrest interchangeably, but they are not the same. Sudden cardiac arrest is a medical emergency that is a result of a sudden, unexpected loss of electrical heart function, breathing, and consciousness.

Unlike a heart attack, where the heart may continue to beat and only the blood supply to the heart is compromised, sudden cardiac arrest causes the heart to stop beating entirely, causing the blood circulation to the brain and other vital organs to cease instantly. If not responded to immediately, brain damage, or even death, can result in a matter of minutes.

What are the risk factors for a heart attack?

According to the American Heart Association, there are two categories of risk factors: traditional and risk-enhancing.

Traditional risk factors for heart attack include:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Overweight or obesity

Risk-enhancing factors for heart attacks include:

  • Family history of early atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (men less than 55 years old, women less than 65 years old)
  • High cholesterol
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic inflammatory conditions (eg, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, HIV/AIDS)
  • History of preeclampsia or early menopause
  • High-risk ethnicity (eg, South Asian ancestry)
  • Higher than normal triglycerides

While you can’t control your age, family history, or an infection, there is a lot you can do to mitigate your risk of heart disease. With healthy lifestyle changes, including heart-healthy eating, staying active, limiting alcohol, quitting smoking, managing stress, and maintaining a healthy weight, you can help prevent heart disease. Even if you already have coronary artery disease, these changes can lower your risk of a heart attack.

What are the signs of a heart attack?

Though some heart attacks are sudden and fatal, many present warning signs or symptoms that, if dealt with quickly, can have happier outcomes. Keep in mind though that these signs can be different for men and women. In the general population, men have heart attacks at nearly twice the rate as women do2. Men also have heart attacks earlier in life compared to women.

Heart attack symptoms in men

Here are some of the symptoms of a heart attack commonly found in men:

  • Chest pain/pressure that feels like “an elephant” is sitting on your chest, with a squeezing sensation, heaviness, or pressure in the chest that may come and go or remain constant and intense
  • Upper body pain or discomfort, including arms, left shoulder, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Stomach discomfort that feels like indigestion
  • Shortness of breath, which may leave you feeling like you can't get enough air, even when you're resting.
  • Dizziness or feeling like you're going to pass out
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat

Heart attack symptoms in women

In women, some symptoms are the same, while others can be different:

  • Unusual fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness
  • Indigestion
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Heart racing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain, weakness, or heaviness in one or both arms
  • Discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back, or abdomen

What to do if you or someone you’re with is having a heart attack

Time is of the essence, so take the following steps:

  • Call 911 immediately and get professionals there as soon as possible.
  • If possible, chew an aspirin to help prevent the formation of blood clots.
  • If you or the person having the heart attack have been prescribed chest pain medications, like nitroglycerin, use it.
  • For unconscious patients, start to perform CPR to keep the blood flowing. Push hard and fast at the center of a person's chest in a rapid rhythm, about 100 to 120 compressions a minute. One way to know the speed of 100 beats per minute, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), is to remember the beat to popular hit songs, including “Stayin' Alive” by the Bee Gees, “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z, “Hips Don't Lie” by Shakira, or “Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash.

Sign up for CPR certification courses through the American Red Cross >>

Help at home to keep you safe

If you or your loved one needs home health care after a heart attack—or are managing chronic conditions that may lead to a heart attack—BAYADA’s compassionate clinicians and caregivers can provide both short- and long-term solutions to help keep you living safely and independently at home. Services such as nursing, therapy, personal care assistance, and much more can be customized to your unique situation.

In the meantime, its never too early to start that new, heart-healthy lifestyle.

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About the Author

Founded in 1975 by Founder and Chairman Mark Baiada, BAYADA has become a trusted leader in providing a full range of clinical care and support services at home for children and adults of all ages. BAYADA remains true to Mark’s commitment to purpose by finding, training, and supporting employees who take pride and find joy in healing and helping.

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