Heart attacks are incredibly common, and unfortunately, can strike at any moment. But the chances of survival increase greatly when the event is identified immediately. In order to spot when a heart attack is happening, start a search to learn about their causes, symptoms, and potential differences in men and women.
What is a Heart Attack?
Every year, the CDC reports that approximately 805,000 people in the United States have a heart attack. A heart attack is a sudden event that occurs when blood (and hence oxygen) traveling to the heart is blocked. It can happen suddenly, but it often comes with warning signs.
The types of blockages that cause heart attacks occur because of a process called atherosclerosis. With atherosclerosis, the coronary arteries become blocked with fat, cholesterol, and other materials that form a structure called a plaque. When a piece of plaque breaks off, a blood clot forms behind it, which effectively stops the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart.
Once the heart is starved for oxygen for any period of time, a process called ischemia starts to occur. When this happens, the heart muscle is damaged and can even die due to the lack of vital oxygen.
The damage from ischemia is called a heart attack, which is referred to clinically as a myocardial infarction. So, a heart attack is essentially the culmination of a few problems that begin with plaque buildup in the arteries.
What Causes a Heart Attack?
As mentioned above, heart attacks are primarily caused by the gradual buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries. But while a heart attack happens suddenly, atherosclerosis actually begins much earlier – sometimes over years.
Some heart attacks are caused by spasms in the coronary artery. The spasms cause the artery to narrow, which either fully or partially stops the blood flow to part of the heart. Doctors still aren’t sure what causes these spasms, but they can come on suddenly.
Another rare cause of heart attack is spontaneous coronary artery dissection, which is when the coronary artery wall tears suddenly.
Initial Heart Attack Symptoms
When a heart attack happens, different symptoms and signs can appear. Typically, everyone exhibits the same signs in the early stages of a heart attack, including:
- Mild pain or discomfort in the chest, which can come and go
- Pain in the shoulders, neck, or jaw
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lightheadedness or fainting
- Feelings of breathlessness
- Anxiety or confusion
Heart Attack Symptoms in Men and Women
As a heart attack progresses, symptoms can vary depending on your gender. When a heart attack moves beyond the early stage, men typically experience the following:
- Chest pain or pressure, a squeezing sensation, or an intense, heavy weight in/on your chest
- Pain or general discomfort in your arms, jaw, back, neck, left shoulder, or stomach
- Gastrointestinal discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- A cold sweat
In women, the same stage of a heart attack can cause the following symptoms:
- Fatigue that comes on suddenly or lasts for several days
- Difficulty sleeping
- Shortness of breath
- Indigestion or sharp pains (which can feel like gas pains)
- Pain in the upper back, shoulder, or throat
- Pain that’s either isolated in the jaw or spreads from the chest up to the jaw
- Pressure or pain in the center of the chest, which can radiate into the arm
Life After a Heart Attack
Heart attacks don’t have to cause sudden death, but they certainly can if not noticed and treated quickly. The speed of medical treatment plays a huge role in the survival rate once anyone has had a heart attack.
However, there is a big difference between men and women when it comes to surviving and recovering from a heart attack. According to the American Heart Association, women who have a heart attack at age 55 or younger tend to fare worse than men. If they survive a heart attack, they often take longer to recover, struggle both physically and mentally, and have a lower quality of life.
On the other hand, men tend to have heart attacks earlier than women. On average, men have their first heart attack at age 65, while women don’t typically experience their first heart attack until age 72. Men tend to seek medical attention in an average of 16 hours. Women typically don’t get help for up to 54 hours.
Learn More Today
There is so much more to learn about heart attacks and the differences men and women experience, so consider doing some additional research online. If you feel anything out of the ordinary, especially if you’re at risk for a heart attack, call 911 right away. Always pay attention to any changes in your health and make sure to seek a doctor’s advice.