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What is a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to part of the heart becomes blocked. Unless the flow of blood is restored quickly, the heart muscle is damaged from lack of oxygen and begins to die. The more time that passes without restoring blood flow, the greater the damage to the heart. A heart attack is also called an acute myocardial infarction (AMI).

What are the signs of a heart attack?

  1. Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and then comes back.

  2. Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

  3. Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.

  4. Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

  5. As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain. Women also often report other symptoms such as unusual fatigue and sleep disturbance.

What causes heart attacks?

Heart attacks are usually caused by atherosclerosis—the build-up of fatty plaques in coronary arteries. When a plaque in an artery breaks, a blood clot forms around the plaque. This blood clot can block the artery and shut off blood flow to the heart muscle.

Do people recover from heart attacks?

According to the American Heart Association, the answer is most likely yes. The heart muscle begins to heal soon after a heart attack and usually takes about eight weeks. Scar tissue will form in the damaged area, and that scar tissue does not contract or pump as well as healthy muscle tissue. That means the heart can’t pump as well as before. The degree of loss of function depends on the size and location of the scar tissue. Most heart attack survivors have some degree of coronary artery disease (CAD) and will have to make important lifestyle changes, and possibly take medication, to prevent a future heart attack and lead a full, productive life.

What are risk factors for heart attack?

A number of factors can put a person at greater risk for heart attacks. According to the American Heart Association:

Risk factors that can be modified by choice and/or medication:

How is the environment associated with heart attacks?

Investigators both in the United States and abroad have shown relationships between short- and long-term exposure to air pollution and the increased risk of heart attack and other forms of heart disease. For example, researchers have demonstrated increases in heart attack hospitalization rates in relation to fine particles (PM2.5) found in haze, smoke and dust. This is particularly true for sensitive groups, such as the elderly, patients with pre-existing heart disease, survivors of heart attack, or people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The level of environmental risk for heart attacks depends on several factors:

How can heart attacks be prevented?

A heart attack can happen to anyone. It is only when you take the time to learn which of the risk factors apply to yourself specifically, that you can take steps to eliminate or reduce them.

To reduce your risk for a heart attack:

To protect your health from air pollution:

What data about heart attacks are included in Vermont’s Tracking program?

Vermont Tracking provides annual data about hospitalizations for heart attack starting in 2000 and emergency department visits for heart attack starting in 2003.

Hospitalizations are inpatient admissions of Vermont residents to hospitals in Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts. Emergency department visits are emergency room visits to Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts hospitals by Vermont residents.

For both hospitalizations and emergency department visits, heart attack data are available by number of cases, crude rate per 10,000 people, age-adjusted rate per 10,000 people, and gender. The gender choices are:

All heart attack data are for age 35 and over. The crude rate data for inpatient hospitalizations also offer age choices:

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