Over 800,000 Americans have a heart attack each year. This means that every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack. These statistics are staggering, but knowing your risk factors and how to manage them can lower your risk of having a heart attack.
What Is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, happens when blood flow to your heart is blocked. The most common cause of a heart attack is coronary artery disease (CAD). In CAD, plaque buildup in coronary artery walls prevents sufficient blood from flowing to the heart. If the plaque detaches from the artery walls, it can form a blood clot that may cause a complete blockage of the artery.
Without necessary blood flow to the heart, the portion of the heart that is fed by that artery does not get the oxygen it needs, and it starts to die. The longer the blockage goes untreated, the more damage the heart suffers.
It is vital to call 9-1-1 if you think you or someone near you is having a heart attack and experiencing any of the following symptoms of a heart attack:
- Chest pain or discomfort, especially in the center or left side of your chest
- Lightheadedness, tiredness, or nausea, especially in women
- Pain in the back, shoulders, neck, or jaw
- Shortness of breath
What Are the Risk Factors for a Heart Attack?
Some factors increase the likelihood that you will develop plaque buildup characteristic of CAD. Risk factors for a heart attack include:
- Age: Men 45 years and older and women 55 years and older have a higher risk of having a heart attack
- Family history of heart attacks
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol or triglyceride levels
- History of autoimmune disorders, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
- History of preeclampsia
- Sedentary lifestyle or low physical activity
- Smoking or long-term exposure to secondhand smoke
- Use of illicit drugs, such as stimulants, cocaine, or amphetamines
Some risk factors, such as age, gender, and family history, cannot be changed. However, others can be managed to reduce your risk of having a heart attack. The following are some actions you can take to prevent a heart attack.
Quit Smoking and Avoid Secondhand Smoke
Chemicals in tobacco smoke can cause your blood vessels to narrow and harden. This makes it more difficult for your heart to get oxygen-rich blood. Your heart may beat faster to compensate for the decreased oxygen supply. Narrow and stiff blood vessels increase your risk of developing CAD and high blood pressure.
If you don’t smoke, try to stay away from environments where you will be exposed to tobacco smoke. Inhaling secondhand smoke for just 30 minutes causes damage to your heart and blood vessels similar to that caused by smoking.
Maintain Your Blood Pressure at a Healthy Level
High blood pressure is one of the top risk factors for heart attack. It can damage arteries that provide oxygen-rich blood to your heart and increase the likelihood that plaque will form. Increased blood pressure also causes your heart to work harder and become stiffer over time.
The following are a few recommendations from the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association to help maintain your blood pressure at target levels:
- Follow a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products and stay away from foods that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol.
- Increase potassium in your diet to 4,700 mg per day to attenuate the effects of sodium on blood pressure.
- Limit your alcohol intake to no more than two drinks per day, if you are a man, and no more than one drink per day, if you are a woman.
- Limit your dietary sodium to less than 1,500 mg per day or reduce your current sodium intake by 1,000 mg per day.
Manage Your Cholesterol Level
High LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglyceride levels contribute to plaque formation and narrowing of your arteries, increasing your risk for a heart attack. On the contrary, raising your HDL (good cholesterol) lowers your risk of having a heart attack. To keep your bad cholesterol low and your good cholesterol high:
- Choose whole grains over refined carbohydrates
- Eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish, nuts, and olive oil
- Get at least 90 minutes of aerobic exercise per week
- Opt for low-fat cuts of meat over cholesterol-heavy red meats
Keep Your Blood Sugar Within Your Goal Levels
Diabetes is a major risk factor for a heart attack. Maintain your blood sugar within healthy goals by following your prescribed diet, keeping active, and regularly taking your medications.
Aim for a Healthy Weight
Obesity contributes to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes, all of which are risk factors for heart attack. You can lower your risk of having a heart attack by losing just 10% of your body weight.
Take Your Medications Regularly and as Prescribed
If you have health conditions that increase your risk of a heart attack, taking your medications regularly and as prescribed by your health care provider is crucial to lowering your risk. Managing high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol sometimes requires several prescription medications. If your insurance does not cover your medicines or the cost is too high, even with insurance, you can use a ScriptSave® WellRx prescription discount card to get the best price for your medications.
Rosanna Sutherby is a freelance medical writer who has been a practicing pharmacist in her community for close to 20 years. She obtained her Doctor of Pharmacy from Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. She utilizes her clinical training in the pharmacy, where she helps patients manage disease states such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and many others. Dr. Sutherby reviews and recommends drug regimens based on patients’ concurrent conditions and potential drug interactions.