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Heart attack – Symptoms and causes

Heart attack – Symptoms and causes

A man having a heart attack

She was rushed into the emergency room on a stretcher, in the early hours of the evening. I learnt from her relatives who brought her that she was a 55-year old chef, and had had high blood pressure for many years. She hadn’t been consistent with taking her medicines. Considering her body mass, I quickly reasoned she must have been in the habit of eating a lot of her own cooking. From all indications and the information from the relatives, she had had a heart attack. 

Her oldest daughter came to the hospital the following morning and all her relatives were concerned to know if she would recover or not… “We’re doing our best” was all I could say. I really wish the patient had also done her best when she had the chance…exercising, eating healthy and taking her medications. We indeed did our best but her condition was really bad. Sadly, a few days later, she passed on in the early hours of the morning.


A heart attack (medically called a myocardial infarction) is a life-threatening condition that occurs when blood flow to the heart muscle is suddenly cut off, causing damage to the heart tissue. This is usually due to a blockage in one or more of the arteries that supply blood to the heart. The blockage occurs due to a buildup of plaque, a substance made of fat, cholesterol, and cellular waste products.


The heart and blood vessels make up the cardiovascular system. Some of the most important vessels are the arteries. They take oxygen-rich blood to the body organs. The coronary arteries take oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle. When these arteries become blocked or narrowed due to a buildup of plaque, the blood flow to the heart can reduce or be totally stopped. This can cause a heart attack. Several factors may lead to a blockage in the coronary arteries, these include foods containing bad cholesterol, saturated fats, and trans-fat.


Certain factors may increase your risk of having a heart attack. These include:

  1. High blood pressure

A person with high blood pressure is at greater risk of a heart attack. Normal blood pressure is below 120/80 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury) depending on a person’s age. As the numbers increase, so does your risk of developing heart problems. Having high blood pressure damages your arteries and accelerates the buildup of plaque.

  1. High cholesterol levels

Having high levels of cholesterol in your blood puts you at risk for a heart attack. You may be able to lower your cholesterol by making changes to your diet or by taking certain medications.

  1. High triglyceride levels

High triglyceride levels also increase your risk of having a heart attack. Triglycerides are a type of fat that blocks your arteries. Triglycerides from the food you eat travel through your blood until they’re stored in your body as fat cells. But, some triglycerides may remain in your arteries and contribute to the buildup of plaque.

  1. Diabetes and high blood sugar levels

Diabetes is a condition that causes blood sugar levels to rise. High blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels and cause a heart attack.

  1. Obesity

Your chances of having a heart attack are higher if you’re very overweight. Obesity is associated with various conditions that increase the risk of heart attack, including diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, high triglyceride levels

  1. Smoking

Smoking tobacco products increases your risk of heart attack. It may also lead to other cardiovascular conditions and diseases.

  1. Age

The risk of having a heart attack increases with age. Men are at a higher risk of a heart attack after age 45, and women are at a higher risk of a heart attack after age 55.

  1. Family history

You’re more likely to have a heart attack if you have a family history of early heart disease.

Other factors that can increase your risk for heart attack include:

  • Stress
  • Lack of exercise
  • The use of certain illegal drugs, including cocaine and amphetamines
  • A history of high blood pressure during pregnancy


The most common symptoms of a heart attack include:

  1. Pressure or tightness in the chest
  2. Pain in the chest, back, jaw, and other areas of the upper body that lasts more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back
  3. Shortness of breath
  4. Sweating
  5. Nausea
  6. Vomiting
  7. Anxiety
  8. Cough
  9. Dizziness
  10. A fast heart rate

Not everyone who has a heart attack has the same symptoms. Chest pain is the most common symptom.


A heart attack requires immediate treatment. This may include:

  • Surgical procedures like angioplasty may be used to unblock the arteries that supply blood to the heart. A coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) may be done in some cases.
  • A number of different medications can also be used to treat a heart attack.

The chances of recovering from a heart attack depend on how much damage has been done to the heart and how quickly emergency care is given. The sooner a person gets treatment, the more likely the person is to survive.


There are many ways to prevent a heart attack, even for those who have had one before.

  1. Eat a heart-healthy diet. This diet should largely consist of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, proteins. You should also reduce the amount of sugar, saturated fat, trans fat,  and cholesterol. This is very important for people with diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
  1. Exercise. Exercising several times a week will also lower your chances of a heart attack. 
  1. Quit smoking: This lowers your risk of a heart attack and improves both heart and lung health. It is also important to avoid being around smokers while they’re smoking(secondhand smoke).
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