In the movies, heart attacks are always very obvious. They’re sudden, intense, and typically the result of some stressful moment or situation. In reality, heart attacks aren’t always so sudden or dramatic. In fact, most heart attacks start slowly with just mild chest pain and discomfort, causing many people to ignore symptoms until it is too late.
A heart attack usually occurs as a result of coronary artery disease (CAD), the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. Every 25 seconds, someone in America will have a heart attack or coronary event and there are approximately 1.2 million new and recurrent heart attacks each year. Fortunately, through a combination of quick action, medications, interventional procedures and surgery, heart attacks can be treated.
Also known as myocardial infarction, a heart attack essentially occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked. Without oxygen-rich blood flowing to the heart, parts of the heart muscle can become permanently damaged and begin to die. A heart attack usually occurs as a result of coronary artery disease (CAD), the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. CAD is a condition characterized by the buildup of plaque on the walls of the arteries. When a section of plaque breaks off, blood clots form at the site, preventing blood (and oxygen) from flowing to parts of the heart served by the blocked artery.
Heart attacks can be fatal if not treated immediately. The area and amount of damage depends on the location of the blocked artery, the size of the area of the heart affected by the blockage, and also the time between when symptoms started and treatment begins. Sometimes a heart attack will cause the heart to beat erratically as it struggles to keep pumping. CPR and Automatic External Defibrillators (AEDs) are often used during a heart attack to jolt the heart’s electrical system back into a normal rhythm.
Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed by Jennifer Monti, MD