Every 40 seconds, a person in the U.S. has a heart attack. But while heart attacks are common, most people still have misunderstandings and general lack of knowledge about them.
Jackie Eubany, MD, a cardiologist and electrophysiologist in Orange, Calif., explains what everyone needs to know about heart attacks, plus the biggest myths surrounding this condition.
What is a heart attack?
“A heart attack happens when there is a blockage in the artery that supplies your heart with the oxygen and nutrients it needs to survive,” Eubany tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The heart is a muscle and it does need oxygen and nutrients to function normally.” When you have a heart attack, part of your heart’s tissue dies.
What are the typical symptoms of a heart attack?
Classic symptoms generally include the following:
Chest pain or pressure
Pain radiating down your left arm
Shortness of breath
“If you’re having these symptoms, you should call 911 right away,” Eubany says.
What are the less common symptoms of a heart attack?
Women are more likely to have non-specific symptoms of a heart attack, Eubany says. Those include:
Shortness of breath
What do people usually get wrong about heart attacks?
There are plenty of myths that surround heart attacks, but Eubany says these are some of the most common:
Young people can’t have heart attacks. That’s not true, Eubany says. While heart attacks are more common among older people, anyone can have a heart attack.
Women don’t have heart attacks. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women, and almost as many women as men die of heart disease in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Heart attacks only cause chest pain. That’s not true either. Not only can heart attacks manifest several different ways, “studies show that 43 percent of women don’t have chest pain with a heart attack,” Eubany says.
Are heart attacks preventable?
“For the most part, heart attacks are preventable,” Eubany says, noting that you can usually decrease your risk of having a heart attack by doing the following:
Increasing your physical activity
Eating a healthy diet
Maintaining a healthy weight
Quitting smoking if you smoke
How is a heart attack treated?
Once you’ve been diagnosed with a heart attack, your doctor will usually recommend that you undergo a procedure called a cardiac catheterization, Eubany says. Cardiac catheterization involves your doctor going through your groin with a catheter and looking at the blood vessels of your heart to determine where the blockage is. If it’s a simple blockage, it can be fixed by a stent, a metal mesh that’s deployed into your heart and expands to open your artery and allow blood to flow through, Eubany says. But if the damage is more severe, you may need bypass surgery, which Eubany likens to taking a detour around a traffic jam, which is the blocked artery.
Is a heart attack usually fatal?
“A heart attack is not a death sentence,” Eubany says. “Treatment for a heart attack is much more advanced these days than they used to be.” More people now than in the past survive heart attacks and lead normal lives, she says, but timing matters. “The quicker you get to the emergency room when you’re having a heart attack, the quicker you get treated, and the more likely you are to recover 100 percent,” Eubany says.