Most heart attacks are the result of coronary heart disease, a condition that clogs coronary arteries with fatty, calcified plaques. In the early 1980s, researchers confirmed that the immediate cause of nearly all heart attacks is not the obstructive plaque itself. Instead, it's the sudden formation of a blood clot on top of plaque that cuts off blood flow in an already narrowed blood vessel.
The step-by-step process that leads to heart attack is not fully understood. Major risk factors, though, are well-known, and some can be controlled. Of these, the main ones are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking, diabetes and a sedentary lifestyle. Stress may also raise the risk, and exertion and excitement can act as triggers for an attack. Another important risk factor is family history. A family history of heart disease can increase the risk in both men and women at earlier ages.
In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask our experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics. In our September 2011 issue, we gave a reader's question about preventing heart disease to James Beckerman, MD, WebMD's heart health expert.
Q : Heart disease runs in my family. What can I really do now to help prevent it?
A : Cut out these five things to greatly reduce your risk:
Smoking (or hanging around with smokers). Smoking is the most dangerous -- yet most reversible...
Men over the age of 50 with a family history of heart disease are predisposed to heart attack. High levels of estrogen are thought to protect premenopausal women fairly well, but the risk of heart attack increases significantly after menopause.
Heart Attack Diagnosis
A cardiologist, or heart specialist, relies on various tests to diagnose a heart attack. These tests can also identify sites of blockage as well as tissue damage.
Monitoring the heart's electrical activity together with blood tests provides data for an initial assessment of the patient's condition. Images of the heart and coronary arteries done with angiograms and radioisotope scans locate specific areas of damage and blockage. Ultrasound tests called echocardiograms evaluate the heart's function. With such data, the doctor can decide on proper treatment as well as anticipate potential complications.
Heart Attack Treatment
A heart attack is a medical emergency. It must be quickly addressed by conventional medicine. At this point, alternative medicine cannot compete with standard drug therapy and surgical treatments. Alternative medicine may at other times, though, make valuable contributions to heart attack prevention and recovery.
Conventional Response to a Heart Attack
Heart attack victims are usually hospitalized in special coronary care units (CCU) for at least 36 hours. Standard drug therapy includes: