What is a heart attack (myocardial infarction)?
A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when one or more regions of the heart muscle experience a severe or prolonged lack of oxygen caused by blocked blood flow to the heart muscle.
The blockage is often a result of atherosclerosis—a buildup of plaque composed of fat deposits, cholesterol, and other substances. Plaque ruptures and eventually a blood clot forms. The actual cause of a heart attack is a blood clot that forms within the plaque-obstructed area.
If the blood and oxygen supply is cut off severely or for a long period of time, muscle cells of the heart suffer damage and die. The result is dysfunction of the muscle of the heart in the area affected by the lack of oxygen.
What are the risk factors for heart attack?
There are two types of risk factors for heart attack, including the following:
Inherited (or genetic)
Inherited or genetic risk factors are risk factors you are born with that cannot be changed, but can be improved with medical management and lifestyle changes.
Inherited (genetic) factors: Who is most at risk?
- People with inherited hypertension (high blood pressure)
- People with inherited low levels of HDL (high-density lipoproteins), high levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) blood cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides
- People with a family history of heart disease (especially with onset before age 55)
- Aging men and women
- People with type 1 diabetes
- Women, after the onset of menopause (generally, men are at risk at an earlier age than women, but after the onset of menopause, women are equally at risk)
Acquired risk factors are caused by activities that we choose to include in our lives that can be managed through lifestyle changes and clinical care.
Acquired risk factors: Who is most at risk?
- People with acquired hypertension (high blood pressure)
- People with acquired low levels of HDL (high-density lipoproteins), high levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) blood cholesterol, or high levels of triglycerides
- Cigarette smokers
- People who are under a lot of stress
- People who drink too much alcohol
- People who lead a sedentary lifestyle
- People overweight by 30 percent or more
- People who eat a diet high in saturated fat
- People with type 2 diabetes
A heart attack can happen to anyone.
It is only when we take the time to learn which of the risk factors apply to us, specifically, can we then take steps to eliminate or reduce them.
Managing heart attack risk factors
Managing your risks for a heart attack begins with:
- Examining which of the risk factors apply to you, and then taking steps to eliminate or reduce them.
- Becoming aware of conditions like hypertension or abnormal cholesterol levels, which may be “silent killers.”
- Modifying risk factors that are acquired (not inherited) through lifestyle changes. Consult your doctor as the first step in starting right away to make these changes.
- Consulting your health care provider soon to determine if you have risk factors that are genetic or inherited and cannot be changed, but can be managed medically and through lifestyle changes.