Blog Post

Knowing heart attack risks

Knowing the warning signs of a heart attack could save your life. (iStock)

By Marcia Z. Siegal

Every 40 seconds, someone suffers a heart attack. Many of these attacks prove fatal. In fact, heart disease — or the buildup of plaque in the heart’s arteries that can lead to a heart attack — is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people are unaware that they are at risk – or realize the added heart risks that can occur in wintertime, warns the CDC. February, American Heart Month, is a good time to think about your heart health.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely. This happens when the coronary arteries that supply the heart with blood slowly narrow from a buildup of plaque, which is made up of a mixture of accumulated fat, cholesterol and other substances. During a heart attack, the blood supply to part of the heart stops and causes a section of the heart muscle to begin to die. A heart attack can cause cardiac arrest, which is the abrupt loss of heart function. Cardiac arrest can cause sudden death, especially without immediate treatment.

Who is at risk?

The American Heart Association (AHA) notes on its website,, that there are three major risks of heart disease that people have no control over:

  • Advancing age: Most people who die of coronary heart disease are 65 or older.
  • Gender: Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women do, and they have attacks earlier in life.
  • Heredity: When one or both parents have heart disease, their children are more likely to develop heart disease as well. However, there are a number of other risk factors – from high blood pressure to diet – that often can be controlled though healthy lifestyle choices and, if needed, medications. For more information about ways to reduce your risks of heart disease click here.

Beware of winter      

Cold weather can cause blood vessels to constrict, while blood flow speeds up to help you stay warm. This combination can increase blood pressure. Additionally, many people are less physically active in wintertime.

These factors contribute to more heart attacks and deaths from heart attacks occurring in winter than in any other season, according to the AHA. Studies suggest that wintertime may be especially risky if you’ve already had a heart attack, have heart disease or are older than 65.

ScienceDaily reports that some research shows other risk factors, such as waist circumference and total cholesterol, to be higher in January and February. According to the AHA, a waist circumference of fewer than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women is recommended for best health, as a large accumulation of fat around the middle has been linked to a higher risk of heart attack.

Blood levels of immune system compounds that help your body fight off infections are also higher in winter and may also add to plaque buildup in arteries, according to researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

Seasonal stress, both mental and physical, may also factor in. People may experience mental stress from social isolation and loneliness, for example, because winter weather can make it difficult to leave the house for regular activities. The AHA says stress may affect factors and behaviors that contribute to an increased heart disease risk. These include high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as smoking, physical inactivity and overeating.

Shoveling snow is a prime example of physical stress that can occur this time of year. It can raise one’s heart rate and blood pressure more quickly than other types of exercise and is typically more strenuous. Experts advise against shoveling if you are older, have heart disease or think you might, or are not accustomed to this level of physical activity.

What are the danger signs?

The AHA offers these heart attack warning signs and notes that “although some heart attacks are sudden and intense, most start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort.”

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Cold sweats, nausea or lightheadedness.

Women’s symptoms

The most common heart attack symptom in both men and women is chest pain or discomfort. But women are more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/ vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

Sometimes, these symptoms can be so subtle that women don’t realize they are having a heart attack. Therefore, they may not seek treatment until the situation has become advanced, and they risk a worse outcome, said Sumeet Mainigi, M.D, a cardiologist affiliated with Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia and director of cardiac electrophysiology (diagnosing and treating heart rhythm disorders) at the medical center.

If you believe that you or someone you know is having a heart attack, call 9-1-1. According to the AHA, it is best to call emergency medical services (EMS) for rapid transport to the emergency room. EMS staff can begin treatment when they arrive – up to an hour sooner than if someone gets to the hospital by car. EMS staff is also trained to revive someone whose heart has stopped. Patients with chest pain who arrive by ambulance usually receive faster treatment at the hospital, too.

CAPTION: Knowing the warning signs of a heart attack could save your life. (iStock)