Heart Attack | Causes & Risk Factors

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What causes heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when part of the heart muscle is damaged or dies because it isn't receiving enough oxygen. The arteries that carry blood and oxygen to the heart are called coronary arteries. Blockages in one or more of the coronary arteries can reduce the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart.

Usually, a blockage starts with atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the buildup of fatty deposits (called plaque) inside your arteries and the hardening of your artery walls. The buildup is like the gunk that builds up in a drainpipe and slows the flow of water. When plaques become cracked or damaged, blood clots can form. If a clot forms in one or more of the coronary arteries, the clots can slow down or stop blood flow to the heart.

Risk factors for a heart attack

  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Age--Risk increases for men older than 45 years of age and for women older than 55 years of age (or after menopause). About 83% of people who die from heart disease are 65 years of age or older.
  • High cholesterol level
  • High blood pressure
  • Family history of heart attack
  • Race--African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans and native Hawaiians are at greater risk.
  • Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • Lack of exercise
  • Stress
  • Obesity
  • Sex (Gender)--More men have heart attacks, although heart disease is the leading cause of death for American women.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff. Portions of this article were written by Susan D. Housholder, RN, MSN, ANP-BC, FAHA.

Reviewed/Updated: 03/14
Created: 09/10

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