The most common cause of a heart attack is the narrowing of one or more of the arteries that supply blood to the heart. This results from the build-up of cholesterol deposits (plaque) in the walls of these arteries. This process is known as atherosclerosis, which limits blood flow and reduces the supply of oxygen to the heart muscle.
This can result in a partial or complete blockage of the heart’s arteries. A sudden and severe blockage can lead to a heart attack.
Risk factors of a heart attack
The risk factors for heart attack can be divided into 2 categories, modifiable and non-modifiable. When more risk factors are present, the risk for a heart attack increases significantly.
Modifiable risk factors that contribute to a heart attack include:
- Cigarette smoking: Smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke damages the inner walls of the arteries, allowing plaque to accumulate.
- Obesity: Sedentary lifestyle or lack of physical exercise, which contributes to obesity and high cholesterol levels
- Chronic conditions such as:
- high blood pressure, which causes the heart to work harder and the heart muscles to thicken and harden. This accelerates the process of atherosclerosis.
- high cholesterol, which is a major component of plaque.
- diabetes, which is linked to increased risk of heart attack and other heart problems, especially if blood sugar levels are poorly controlled.
Non-modifiable risk factors that contribute to a heart attack include:
- Age: Men aged 45 or older and women aged 55 or older are more likely to have a heart attack than younger men and women
- Family history: If one of your immediate family members, such as a parent or sibling, has had a heart attack, or was diagnosed with heart disease before the age of 60, this may indicate a family history of premature heart disease. This means that your chances of developing heart disease may be higher than normal population
- Gender: Men have a greater risk for heart attacks and at a younger age compared to women of the same age.
- Ethnicity: African Americans, Hispanics, Latinos, and Southeast Asians, are ethnic groups with an increased risk of CAD morbidity and mortality
Preventing a heart attack
You can reduce your risk for a heart attack by practising preventive measures in these areas:
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Consume more whole grains, fruits, vegetables and fish, and reduce or eliminate foods that are high in fat and sodium such as fried or processed foods and prepared sauces.
- Control high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes which are risk factors for heart attack. This includes following any dietary restrictions and taking the medications recommended by your doctor.
- Get regular exercise. This will help to strengthen the heart and improve blood circulation. It also plays an important role in maintaining a healthy body weight to prevent obesity, another risk factor for heart attacks, and helps with managing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
- Stop smoking. Quitting smoking may reduce your risk of heart attack by 50%.