Understanding Heart Attacks

By Emma Gerard,

In Canada, 2.4 million adults over the age of 20 live with diagnosed heart disease.1 Among these adults, as well as the general population, there is a high incidence of heart attack, with men being two times more likely to suffer a heart attack than women.1 According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, a heart attack (myocardial infarction) occurs when blood flow to a section of the heart becomes blocked, causing that heart tissue to die, and possibly causing severe, lifelong damage.2

Heart attacks most often occur as a result of coronary artery disease (CAD). A common symptom of CAD is atherosclerosis, which is caused by the build up of a waxy substance called plaque. 3 After many years of build up, the artery will narrow, and eventually, the blood flow through that artery may become blocked.3

Some risk factors for the development of CAD, such as your age (risk increases for men after age 45 and for women after age 55) and family history, are not within our control.3 However, most of the risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, an unhealthy diet, and inactivity, are within our control.3 Living a “heart healthy lifestyle” can greatly assist in preventing a heart attack. A “heart healthy lifestyle” is characterized by eating a healthy and balanced diet1, being physically active, refraining from smoking, and managing your stress levels and body weight.3 It is also important to treat existing conditions such as diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and peripheral artery disease.3 Lastly, it is essential to develop an emergency action plan, so that you are well prepared, in the unfortunate event that you do suffer a heart attack.3 According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, this plan may include creating a list of medications that you are taking, your allergies, and the contact information for your health care provider. This list should be kept easily accessible in your wallet at all times.3

Heart attacks may either begin suddenly and intensely, or slowly, with mild pain and/ or discomfort. The symptoms of a heart attack can include, but are not limited to the following:

  1. Chest discomfort (which either lasts more than a few seconds or that goes away and then comes back and can feel like an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain). 4
  1. Discomfort/ pain in the back, or neck, jaw. 4
  1. Discomfort/ pain in the arm or shoulder.
  1. Shortness of breath. 4
  1. Cold sweat, nausea, and/ or lightheadedness. 4

heart attack

Table 1: Common Heart Attack Warning Signs. 4

If you suspect that you are having a heart attack, take action immediately. The first step is to call 9-1-1, as an ambulance is the best and safest way to get to the hospital and receive treatment. While you are waiting for the ambulance to arrive, the 9-1-1 operators may instruct you to chew and swallow aspirin (so long as you are not allergic) in an attempt to break up the blood clot.2 After treatment, you may be counseled to undergo lifestyle changes, begin taking medication, and attend a cardiac rehabilitation program, in order to return to your daily activities safely and quickly, and to prevent a future cardiac event.3

1 For more information on heart healthy diets, see our previous blog post written by Aleks Borisov titled “The Mediterranean diet and your cardiovascular health”.


1. Heart Disease in Canada. 2017. Accessed May 10th 2018.

2. Heart Attack. 2018. Accessed May 10th 2018.

3. Heart Attack. 2018. Accessed May 8th 2018.

4. Warning Signs of a Heart Attack. 2018. Accessed May 9th 2018.

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