Tracking Heart Attacks

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to part of the heart becomes blocked. Unless the flow of blood is restored quickly, the heart muscle is damaged from lack of oxygen and begins to die. The more time that passes without restoring blood flow, the greater the damage to the heart. A heart attack is also called an acute myocardial infarction (AMI).

Signs of a Heart Attack

  • For men and women, the most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain. Women also often report other symptoms such as unusual fatigue and sleep disturbance.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and then comes back.


Causes of Heart Attacks

Heart attacks are usually caused by atherosclerosis, the build-up of fatty plaques in coronary arteries. When a plaque in an artery breaks, a blood clot forms around the plaque. This blood clot can block the artery and shut off blood flow to the heart muscle.


The Environment and Heart Attacks

Investigators both in the United States and abroad have documented a relationship between short and long term exposure to particulate air pollution and the increased risk of myocardial infarction, referred to as heart attack, and other forms of coronary heart disease. For example, researchers have demonstrated increases in heart attack hospitalization rates in relation to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), particularly in sensitive groups, such as the elderly, patients with pre-existing heart disease, survivors of heart attack, or people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Overall air quality has improved in the last 20 years, but air quality in urban areas are still a concern. The elderly and children are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.

The impact of environmental risk factors on heart attack risk depends on several factors:

  • Amount of pollution in the air;
  • Overall health; and
  • Person's exposure to the air pollution.

Other risks include pre-existing conditions and behavioral factors, such as:

  • Diabetes;
  • Drinking too much alcohol;
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke;
  • High cholesterol;
  • High blood pressure;
  • Obesity;
  • Physical inactivity;
  • Poor diet; and
  • Smoking.

Heart disease can run in the family. Genetic factors likely play some role in high blood pressure, heart disease, and other vascular conditions. However, people with a family history of heart disease likely share common environments and risk factors that may increase their risk.


Preventing Heart Attacks

A heart attack can happen to anyone. The following are steps people can take to reduce their risk for a heart attack:

  • Do regular physical activity;
  • Do not smoke;
  • Eat a nutritious diet;
  • Maintain a healthy weight;
  • Prevent and control diabetes;
  • Prevent and control high blood pressure;
  • Prevent and control high cholesterol; and
  • Use alcohol in moderation.