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As the No. 1 killer of men and women in the United States, heart disease claims more lives than all forms of cancer combined—one death every 39 seconds. Because of this staggering statistic, it’s important to understand potential causes and symptoms of a heart attack.

The heart is a muscle and needs oxygen to survive. Atherosclerosis is a slow process whereby plaque—a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other materials—builds within the walls of arteries and can limit the supply of blood and oxygen to the heart muscle. This plaque can remain stable for many years, and depending on the amount of plaque, it may or may not limit blood flow to the heart muscle. However, plaque 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.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), prevention of a heart attack begins at 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, including 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; and visiting your doctor regularly.

For more information on heart attack prevention and treatment, visit the AHA’s website at Heart.org.

Sources: American Heart Association (AHA), Go Red for Women

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