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Heart Attack

A heart attack is also called a myocardial infarction. It happens when one or more parts of the heart muscle don’t get enough oxygen. That occurs when blood flow to the heart muscle is blocked.

If the blood and oxygen supply is cut off, muscle cells of the heart begin to suffer damage and start to die. Lasting (permanent) damage begins within 30 minutes of blockage. The heart muscle may then no longer work as it should.

What causes a heart attack?

A blockage in the arteries can lead to a heart attack. A blockage is caused by a buildup of plaque. This is called atherosclerosis. Plaque is made up of deposits, cholesterol, and other substances. When a plaque breaks (ruptures), a blood clot quickly forms. The blood clot is the actual cause of the heart attack.

Who is at risk for a heart attack?

A heart attack can happen to anyone. But certain factors can raise your risk for one. Some of these factors you can’t change. Others you may be able to manage through lifestyle changes and medical care.

You may be at higher risk for a heart attack if you:

  • Have high blood pressure
  • Have low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or high levels of triglycerides.
  • Have a family history of heart disease. This is especially true if the heart disease started before age 55.
  • Are older in age. Generally, men are at risk at a younger age than women. After menopause, women are equally at risk.
  • Have diabetes.
  • Smoke, including chewing tobacco and electronic cigarettes (vaping)
  • Are under a lot of stress
  • Drink too much alcohol or use illegal drugs
  • Are not active
  • Are overweight
  • Eat a diet high in saturated fat and low in fiber

For more information on this topic, visit our Health Library.