February is American Heart Month, and this year we are spotlighting one of the oldest and most prevalent public health issues: the heart attack.1,2 A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is reduced or blocked altogether.3 This is often caused by atherosclerosis of the heart, or coronary artery disease, a condition that develops when cholesterol builds up in the coronary arteries.4 About half of Americans between ages 45 and 84 have atherosclerosis and don't know it.4
Check out five important facts you may not know about heart attacks:
Every year in the United States, about 805,000 people have a heart attack. That's about one every 40 seconds. Of these, 605,000 are a first heart attack, and 200,000 are in people who have already had at least one heart attack.2
They're often caused by high LDL-C.
LDL-C (low-density lipoprotein cholesterol) is often referred to as "bad" cholesterol. When your body contains high levels of LDL-C, LDL builds up in the walls of your blood vessels which can lead to atherosclerosis. This increases your risk for health problems, such as a heart attack.5 A low LDL-C level is optimal for your health, and it's even more important if you've had one or more heart attacks.6
Their symptoms might not be what you expect.
In addition to the tell-tale signs of a heart attack (e.g., chest pain, shortness of breath, and pain or discomfort in one or both arms), there are other symptoms that you may not associate with heart attacks.7
- Waking up in a cold sweat and experiencing nausea and/or vomiting may be symptoms of another ailment, but they can also be signs of a heart attack.7,8
- In movies we see people clutching their arms or chest in pain, but did you know pain is also common in the jaw, neck, and back?7
- Fatigue and exhaustion often come into play during a heart attack because of the stress of your heart pumping an area where blood flow is blocked. This symptom is generally more common in women than men.9
They can be silent.
One in five people have a silent heart attack, which is a heart attack with few, if any, symptoms, and sometimes the symptoms aren't recognized as a heart attack at all.2 Those who have experienced this might think in the moment that they had heartburn, the flu, or strained a chest muscle.10 Research shows that having one silent heart attack increases an individual's risk of having another heart attack and increases the risk of complications like heart failure.10
They may be preventable, so act now and talk to your doctor.
LDL-C is the main culprit for blockages in the coronary arteries, but an LDL-C test can help determine if you're at risk for a heart attack.11
There are ways to help lower your LDL-C, including:
- Maintaining a healthy diet. A healthy diet is another way to help lower your LDL-C. Eating nutrient-dense foods that have vitamins, minerals, and fiber is a better choice than eating processed foods that may be high in saturated and trans fats.12
- Staying active. Being active every day is a great way to help lower your LDL-C. Studies have shown that at least 150 minutes per week of physical activity can help lower LDL-C.12
- Talking to your doctor about the right medication if you have high LDL-C. If you're on medication post-heart attack and your LDL-C remains higher than 55 mg/dL, your current treatment may not be enough.13
If you or someone you know is having a heart attack, call emergency services (911 in the United States).
- The American College of Cardiology. Earliest Case Of Coronary Artery Disease Found In Egyptian Princess. Accessed January 2023. https://www.acc.org/about-acc/press-releases/2011/04/05/16/22/mummies
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart Disease Facts. Accessed January 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm
- Mayo Clinic. Heart Attack: Symptoms & Causes. Accessed January 2023. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-attack/symptoms-causes/syc-20373106
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is Atherosclerosis? Accessed January 2023. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/atherosclerosis
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. LDL and HDL Cholesterol: "Bad" and "Good" Cholesterol. Accessed January 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/ldl_hdl.htm
- Lloyd-Jones D, Morris P, et al. 2022 ACC Expert Consensus Decision Pathway on the Role of Nonstatin Therapies for LDL-Cholesterol Lowering in the Management of Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease Risk. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2022 Oct, 80 (14) 1366–1418. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2022.07.006
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart Attack: What are the symptoms of heart attack? Accessed January 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/heart_attack.htm
- Penn Medicine. 4 Silent Heart Attack Signs. Accessed January 2023. https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/heart-and-vascular-blog/2022/april/4-silent-heart-attack-signs
- Healthline. Warning Signs of a Heart Attack. Accessed January 2023. https://www.healthline.com/health/heart-disease/warning-signs-heart-attack#fatigue
- Mayo Clinic. Silent heart attack: What are the risks? https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-attack/expert-answers/silent-heart-attack/faq-20057777
- Medline Plus. Cholesterol Levels. Accessed January 2023. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/cholesterol-levels/
- American Heart Association. Lifestyle Changes for Heart Attack Prevention. Accessed January 2023. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/life-after-a-heart-attack/lifestyle-changes-for-heart-attack-prevention
- Gencer B, Giugliano RP. Management of LDL-cholesterol after an acute coronary syndrome: Key comparisons of the American and European clinical guidelines to the attention of the healthcare providers. Clin Cardiol. 2020 Jul;43(7):684-690. doi: 10.1002/clc.23410. Epub 2020 Jun 29. PMID: 32596859; PMCID: PMC7368309.