Meredith Singer | HealthGreatness

Who needs to know?

An acute myocardial infarction (MI), also known as a heart attack, affects approximately 720,000 Americans each year.  Men and women from all ethnic groups and races are at risk for heart disease and an MI.  It is the leading cause of death for African Americans, Hispanics, and whites.  It is the second leading cause of death for American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asians and Pacific Islanders (

While anyone can have underlying heart disease that leads to an MI, some medical conditions and lifestyle choices can increase your risk.  People with a strong family history of heart problems, particularly at a young age, are at higher risk.  Diabetes, elevated cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and obesity are four other medical conditions that increase risk.  Smoking, physical inactivity, poor diet, and excessive alcohol use are modifiable risk factors (or lifestyle choices) that increase risk.

Why does this happen?

An MI occurs when the heart muscle does not receive enough oxygen-rich blood.  This usually occurs when a small bit of plaque in a blood vessel (atherosclerosis) breaks off and forms a blood clot.  The clot then blocks the blood flow to an area of the heart. When the cells are starved of oxygen (from the blood) they die off (know as necrosis).  The more cells that necrose, the greater the damage to the heart and the greater chance that it will have lasting effects, including death. Therefore, it is important to recognize MI warning signs so that prompt treatment can be obtained and death prevented.

How do I know?

While an MI is diagnosed with an electrocardiogram (ECG), certain blood tests (known as cardiac enzymes), and other imaging studies (such as an echocardiogram and cardiac catheterization), there are certain MI warning signs that can signal the need for immediate medical evaluation.

An MI can present with sudden and intense symptoms or, more commonly, with slow and vague symptoms.  The most common MI warning signs and symptoms are:

  1. Chest pain or discomfort.  It usually occurs in the center of the chest and has been described as pressure, squeezing, or crushing.  The pain or discomfort can radiate to the arms, shoulders, neck, back, or jaw.  It can last a few minutes or come and go.
  2. Shortness of breath.  This can occur with the chest discomfort, before, or on its own.
  3. Cold sweats.  Often profuse, without an associated fever.
  4. Nausea.  Can occur with or without vomiting and is often accompanied by a generalized unwell feeling.

Not everyone has chest pain when experiencing an MI so it is important to pay attention to the other MI warning signs.  A person has a much greater likelihood of surviving a heart attack if prompt treatment is initiated by calling 911.

What can I do?

The best way to love your heart is to keep your heart healthy.  Maintaining a healthy weight by making good food choices and staying physically active is an important step.  Avoid excessive alcohol use and if you smoke, quit.

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