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By Dr. Joseph M. Szczytowski

According to the American Heart Association, approximately 720,000 people in the United States suffer a heart attack each year, and approximately 122,000 of those people die. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. It’s important to understand potential causes and symptoms of a heart attack, since the earlier victims receive medical help, the better their chances of making a full or more complete recovery.

The heart is a muscle and needs oxygen to survive. Atherosclerosis is a slow process whereby plaque builds up within the walls of arteries and can limit the supply of blood and oxygen to the heart muscle. Plaque includes a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances. These plaques can remain stable for many years, and depending on the size of the plaques, may or may not limit blood flow to the heart muscle. Sometimes these plaques can become unstable, causing a sudden blood clot to form, blocking the flow of blood to the heart and starving it of oxygen and nutrients. This is called ischemia. When ischemia occurs suddenly—causing damage or death to part of the heart muscle—it is called a myocardial infarction (MI) or heart attack.

As with many diseases, being aware of possible risk factors is the best prevention. Medical conditions highly correlated with heart attacks include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, physical inactivity, diabetes, obesity and being overweight. If you have one or more of these conditions, it is important to discuss the possibility of a heart attack with a healthcare provider.

According to the American Heart Association, prevention of heart attack begins by age 20. While not all heart attacks can be prevented, there are precautionary measures that can be taken to decrease the risk of a heart attack. These healthier living measures include:

  • Not smoking
  • Limiting unhealthy fats and cholesterol
  • Knowing your family medical history and high-risk medical conditions
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Managing stress
  • Visiting your doctor regularly

The earlier a heart attack victim receives medical treatment, the more likely they are to survive. Heart attacks can strike suddenly, but many heart attacks start slowly—with only mild pain or discomfort. Anyone who experiences even a single symptom of a heart attack should seek medical help. Time matters—do not wait to call 911.

Symptoms of a heart attack for both men and women include:

  • Chest discomfort in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes, or pain that is reoccurring
  • Pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness
  • Cold sweat

Treatment for a heart attack can begin immediately—before a patient receives a formal diagnosis—to prevent or limit possible damage to the heart. For this reason, it is important to contact medical personnel immediately by calling 911.

For more information on heart attack prevention and treatment, visit the American Heart Association at

Joseph M. Szczytowski, D.O., is a cardiologist at St. David’s Round Rock Medical Center.

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