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When you think of a heart attack, you may have an image in your mind of someone—typically a man—suddenly folded over and clutching their chest. After all, this is how it's often portrayed in many movies and TV shows. But while this can be the case, the signs of a heart attack may be much more subtle.

Heart attack, also called myocardial infarction, is a leading killer of men and women in the United States. Fortunately, there are treatments that can save lives and help people live an active life. But this hinges on getting timely care.

More than 800,000 Americans have a heart attack each year. A heart attack happens when the heart's blood supply is suddenly cut off. When this happens, the heart muscle is starved of oxygen-rich blood. In just a short period of time, part of the heart can be damaged or die and scar tissue forms. That's why immediate care is critical—it can spare your heart and save your life. If your heart has a lot of damage, it can be very weak.

Most often, heart attacks result from a build up of plaque inside the coronary artery (atherosclerosis). When the plaque breaks away inside of the artery, a blood clot can form, blocking blood flow through a coronary artery. Two less common causes of heart attacks are an intense, prolonged spasm of the coronary artery or a tear in the artery wall (called spontaneous coronary artery dissection), both of which can reduce blood flow to the heart muscle.

Having a heart attack can be scary, and it's often life-changing. For some people, it's the scare they need to live a heart healthier life—making a conscious decision to eat better, exercise, manage other risk factors such as high cholesterol or blood pressure and not smoke. For others, they may have lived for years unaware they were even at risk.

Heart attacks are linked to heart failure and possibly life-threatening problems with how the heart beats (arrhythmias).

  • Last Edited 08/31/2015