Frequently Asked Questions

What is a heart attack and the symptoms of a heart attack?

A heart attack refers to the death of heart muscle tissue caused by a sudden arterial blockage, which is usually the formation of a clot on top of a pre-existing buildup of cholesterol, called a plaque. The most common symptoms associated are chest, arm and neck pain. Current technology allows the re-opening of blocked arteries to preserve heart muscle and thereby heart function. It is therefore imperative that medical help be sought as soon as chest pain and associated symptoms occur.

The National Heart Attack Alert Program notes these major symptoms of a heart attack:

Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain. Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. This can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

Shortness of breath. This often comes along with chest discomfort. But it also can occur before chest discomfort. Other symptoms. These may include breaking out in a cold sweat or experiencing nausea or light–headedness.

A stroke is death of brain tissue due to either bleeding into the brain or interruption of blood flow to an area of the brain. In the adult, the most common cause of stroke is the interruption of blood flow. This can occur in situ at the location of the stroke within the brain due to vascular disease or it can be a result of the passage or embolization of particulate matter from arteries in the neck, the large aorta within the chest, or the heart itself. This particular matter can be clotted blood or fragmented bits of cholesterol. Stroke is the most common complication related to longstanding, poorly controlled high blood pressure or hypertension.

If you think that you or someone you know is having a heart attack, you should call 9-1-1 immediately.

Some conditions as well as some lifestyle factors can put people at a higher risk for heart disease. The most important modifiable risk factors for heart disease are high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, cigarette smoking, diabetes, physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, and obesity. In principle, all persons can take steps to lower their risk for heart disease. For more information about these risk factors, please see our section on risk factors.

There are a variety of factors that can put you at risk for cardiac problems, some of which can be changed. These risk factors include:

  • Smoking tobacco
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Physical inactivity
  • Excess body fat
  • Diabetes

The presence of more than one of these factors greatly increases your risk for cardiac problems. Additionally, stress, alcohol consumption and diet are other controllable factors that can raise your chances of experiencing heart-related issues.

Cholesterol is a fatty substance in the blood which is deposited within the arteries, producing progressive obstruction to many different organs, particularly the heart. Cholesterol has two components, HDL (good) and LDL (bad). The total numbers and the relationship of these components determine their predisposition to the development of plaques within the arteries to your heart. Triglycerides are another fat which exists within your body and their elevation can result in the formation of the worst type of cholesterol and fat particles. A lipid profile allows us to examine all of these components in detail.

Blood pressure has two numbers associated with it, the higher one (the systolic) refers to the peak pressure generated by the contracting heart. The second lower number (diastolic) is the number, which is determined by the runoff of blood in the body when the heart is relaxed. Current recommendations are that these numbers should be 120/80 or less. You may notice that this is a much more aggressive number than we have allowed in the past. High blood pressure is the number one cause of stroke in the American population. Rarely do we find curative causes for high blood pressure, and usually medical therapy of some type is required. Simple things such as weight loss and the elimination of sodium from your diet can help in over 1/3 of the cases to restore blood pressure to normal.

Stress testing is a method by which your heart can be examined for the possibility of coronary artery blockage. The test involves a progressive increase in workload under continuous electrocardiographic monitoring conditions. The test is carried out to a predetermined level based primarily on heart rate. Frequently, stress testing is performed in conjunction with echocardiography or nuclear scanning of the heart muscle. These methods increase our ability to make an appropriate and correct diagnosis. The test is usually performed in patients who have symptoms or in whom there is a strong suspicion of the possibility of coronary artery disease, such as individuals with multiple risk factors.

Persons can take steps to lower their risk of developing heart disease by preventing or treating and controlling high blood pressure, preventing or treating and controlling high blood cholesterol, by not using tobacco, by preventing or controlling diabetes, and by maintaining adequate physical activity, weight, and a healthy diet. Persons being treated for conditions or risk factors should follow the guidance of their health care providers.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and is a major cause of disability. More than 600,000 people die of heart disease in the U.S. each year. That is 1 in every 4 of all U.S. deaths. In addition, heart disease is a leading cause of disability in the U.S.

Together, heart disease and stroke are among the most widespread and costly health problems facing the nation today, accounting for more than $312.6 billion* in health care expenditures and lost productivity annually—and these costs are rising.