Heart Attack Causes & Risk Factors

What causes a heart attack?

A heart attack is usually caused by the buildup of plaque in your coronary arteries. The plaque builds up over time to eventually slow or completely block blood flow to the heart muscle.

Plaque is made up of fatty substances, like cholesterol, in your blood. The plaque builds up slowly over time. Eventually plaque can harden and narrow the coronary arteries. Plaque can also slow or completely block blood flow to the heart muscle. When plaque blocks the blood supply to your heart, your heart cannot get the oxygen it needs.

Atherosclerosis is the general medical term for plaque buildup that clogs arteries. Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the medical term for atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries. So atherosclerosis or CAD—whatever term you use—can cause heart attacks.

For many decades doctors thought that heart attacks—and CAD in general—affected mostly men. Doctors are now realizing that heart disease is just as common in women. As a result, more clinical studies are being done to learn about how heat attacks differ in men and women.

Who is at risk?

The key to preventing a heart attack is managing your risk factors. In particular the risk factors you can control often make a major difference in how likely you are to have a heart attack. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chances of developing CAD.

Risks Factors of heart attacks that you can change

  • Eating high-fat foods
  • Lack of exercise
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Excess weight

Risk factors of heart attacks you cannot change

  • Age—the risk increases as you age
  • Gender
  • Heredity—the risk increases if there is a family history of heart or blood vessel disease

Other health conditions that can increase your risk

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure

How to Find Out If You May Have a Problem

Of course, it is normal for your heart rate to vary widely during the course of a day, depending on whether you're active or resting. For example, you can expect your heart rate to increase when you are exercising, but not when you are sitting still. What is not normal is a heart rate that is fast or slow because of a problem with the conduction system. If you have certain symptoms, your doctor may want to test your conduction system.

Conduction problems like arrhythmias can sometimes go unnoticed.

Other times they can cause the following symptoms:

  • Reduced energy levels
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Palpitations (feeling your heart skip a beat or pound quickly)
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness

The good news is that tests can show if you have conduction problems. That's why you should check with your doctor if you have any of these symptoms. You know your body well enough to tell when something doesn't feel right.

To check for problems, your doctor might recommend one or more tests. But keep in mind that if you are referred for testing, it doesn't automatically mean that you have conduction problems. These tests can also help determine if you don't have conduction problems.