Penn Heart and Vascular

Penn Heart and Vascular Update

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Cause of Heart Attacks: Clogged Arteries in the Heart

Image of Emil deGoma, MDEmil deGoma, MD, assistant professor of medicine and medical director of the Preventive Cardiovascular Program at Penn Medicine, discusses what causes and the risk factors for heart attacks.
Approximately every 34 seconds, someone in the United States will experience a heart attack, and approximately every minute, someone will die from one.

What causes a heart attack?

Heart attacks arise when normal blood flow to the heart suddenly stops. Blood provides oxygen to the heart muscles, and without enough oxygen, heart muscle cells begin to die, causing a heart attack.

Heart attacks and strokes frequently come without warning. Knowing your risk before cardiovascular disease strikes is the key first step to living a long, heart-healthy life.

Why does blood flow to the heart become blocked?

Image of an atherosclerosis illustration, or clogged arteries, which is a major risk factor for heart attacks.
Heart attacks often occur when plaque in the arteries
ruptures, creating clots that block blood flow to the heart.
A condition known as atherosclerosis causes blockages in the body’s blood vessels. Atherosclerosis is the accumulation of cholesterol and inflammatory material (also called plaque) within the arteries walls. Atherosclerosis is a gradual process that occurs over many years, and it can even begin in childhood. Heart attacks occur when changes in the plaque cause the plaque to rupture or break. Substances are then released into the adjacent bloodstream and cause a clot to form around the site of the ruptured plaque. This clot prevents blood from reaching the heart muscle. Unless the blood clot is treated quickly, the heart muscle dies, resulting in a heart attack. 

Risk Factors That Cannot be Changed

Many risk factors for heart attacks and heart disease cannot be changed, such as:
  • Age
  • Sex (men are more likely to develop atherosclerosis)
  • Genetic predisposition to heart disease or stroke

Modifiable Cardiovascular Risk Factors

Many heart disease risk factors are controllable. These risk factors include:
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High blood sugar (diabetes)
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Poor nutrition
  • Absence of regular physical activity
  • Being overweight

Most heart attacks are preventable, but steps must be taken to reduce your risk.

Are you concerned with your risk of heart attack? Penn Medicine's Preventive Cardiovascular Program offers a wide range of services for individuals looking to learn what their risk is for cardiovascular disease.

Learn about Penn Medicine's
Preventive Cardiovascular Program

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