A heart attack is generally caused by health conditions like atherosclerosis and hypertension that are left untreated. They can interfere with how blood reaches the heart and/or can increase the rate at which the heart has to work to pump blood to the rest of the body.
In addition, some medications, like triptans and chemotherapy drugs (especially when not followed as prescribed), as well as illicit drugs (like cocaine) can also affect the heart and cause a heart attack. Despite the underlying cause, it is important to adopt lifestyle habits like a healthy diet and regular exercise to decrease the risk for a heart attack.
If you suspect you may have a health condition that can lead to a heart attack, you should see a family doctor for evaluation. If you have symptoms of a heart attack, like chest pain or shortness of breath, you should seek urgent medical attention.
Heart attack causes
The main causes of a heart attack are:
Atherosclerosis is one of the main causes of a heart attack. In many cases, it is triggered by excessive intake of fatty, high-cholesterol foods that cause fatty plaques to deposit along the arteries. These plaques can also start to form in the heart’s major vessels, which can compromise blood flow and lead to symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath and heart attack.
What to do: If you suspect you may have atherosclerosis, it is important to consult a family doctor or cardiologist for assessment. Treatment may involve prescription medications like statins (to control cholesterol), anti-hypertensives or surgery to restore blood flow. The doctor may also advise you to adhere to a low cholesterol diet.
2. High blood pressure
When blood pressure is very elevated, the heart has to work even harder to pump blood through the blood vessels. In addition, hypertension makes blood vessels contract, which increases damage along vessel walls and promote blood clot formation. When the heart works too heart or if clots form within the artery, it increases the chances for a heart attack.
What to do: If you suspect you may have arterial hypertension, you should consult a family doctor or cardiologist, as treatment usually involves antihypertensives and diuretics. Very elevated blood pressure can cause symptoms like headaches, sleepiness or chest pain, which should be assessed in a hospital setting.
Check out the blood pressure medications that your doctor may prescribe.
Uncontrolled diabetes can damage blood vessel walls due to increased blood sugar levels. This accelerates the development of atherosclerosis, which increases the risk for a heart attack. Diabetics who do not manage this condition will typically not consider their diet and do not exercise regularly.
What to do: If you suspect you may have diabetes, it is important to consult a family doctor or endocrinologist for evaluation, as complications like diabetic neuropathy can be prevented with appropriate treatment. The doctor will likely prescribe diabetes medication to manage fluctuating blood sugars.
Obesity increases the risk for cardiovascular disease, as this condition is characterized by sedentarism and overeating foods that are high in sugar or fat. This promotes the development of illnesses like diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension, which increase the risk for a heart attack.
What to do: You should adopt measures to lose weight and consult an endocrinologist as well as a registered dietitian. Use our calculator to find our what your ideal weight should be.
Frequent tobacco use can increase inflammation within the blood vessels and lead to their hardening. This forces the heart to work harder and increases the risk for heart attack, as well as strokes, thrombosis and aneurysms.
Cigarettes promote higher cholesterol absorption, which stimulates the production of new fatty plaques in the blood vessels. This promotes the development of atherosclerosis, which increases the risk for a heart attack.
What to do: To prevent the risk for a heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases, smoking cessation. Quitting smoking can be supported with medical and psychological help.
6. Drug and alcohol use
Using illicit drugs, like cocaine and marijuana, as well as excessive alcohol intake can increase the risk for a heart attack by causing high blood pressure. Drugs like cocaine also cause contraction of the arteries that deliver blood to the heart, which can interfere with optimal blood flow and lead to heart attacks.
What to do: You are advised to avoid using illicit drugs and to reduce alcohol intake. This can help to reduce your risk for a heart attack, as well as other conditions like cirrhosis and hypertension. It is also possible to seek psychological help if you have difficulty quitting these substances.
Arrhythmias that causes increased heart rates overload the heart and also interfere with blood flow to this organ. They can cause chest pain, shortness of breath and even heart attacks.
What to do: If you suspect an arrhythmia, you should see a family doctor or cardiologist for assessment and treatment as needed. Symptoms like chest pain and chest pain should be assessed urgently in the hospital.
8. Medication side effects
Medications like tryptans to treat a migraine, antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs can cause rare side effects that affect coronary artery contractions. This can interfere with blood flow to the heart, and can even be cardiotoxic, which means they can damage heart cells and increase the risk for a heart attack.
What to do: Before starting any medication, it is important to detail your health history to the prescriber and to follow treatment as prescribed to prevent serious side effects.
An embolism is generally caused by a clot that forms within the blood vessels or heart. It can occur with conditions like cardiomyopathy, valvular disease and arrhythmias, like atrial fibrillation. Clots can obstruct the arteries that bring blood back to the heart, leading to a heart attack.
What to do: Illnesses associated with a higher clot risk, like atrial fibrillation or valvular disease, should be carefully monitored and treated by a cardiologist. Treatment usually involves the use of anticoagulants.
How to decrease your risk for a heart attack
To decrease your risk for a heart attack, you are advised to:
- Maintain a healthy diet
- Exercise regularly
- Quit smoking
- Lose weight if you are overweight or obese
- Avoid excessive alcohol consumption
- Avoid illicit drugs, like cocaine or marijuana
- Take medications only as prescribed by your doctor
It is also important to adhere to treatment for hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes as outlined by your doctor.