The Basics: Overview
Take steps today to lower your risk of heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States.
To help prevent heart disease, you can:
- Eat healthy.
- Get active.
- Stay at a healthy weight.
- Quit smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke.
- Control your cholesterol (“koh-LEHS-tuh-rahl”) and blood pressure.
- If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation.
- Manage stress.
Am I at risk for heart disease?
You are at higher risk for heart disease if you:
- Have high cholesterol or high blood pressure
- Are overweight or obese
- Don't get enough physical activity
- Don't eat a healthy diet
Your age and family history also affect your risk for heart disease. Your risk is higher if:
- You are a woman over age 55
- You are a man over age 45
- Your father or brother had heart disease before age 55
- Your mother or sister had heart disease before age 65
But the good news is there's a lot you can do to prevent heart disease.
The Basics: What Is Heart Disease?
What is heart disease?
When people talk about heart disease, they are usually talking about coronary heart disease (CHD). It’s also called coronary artery disease (CAD). This is the most common type of heart disease.
When someone has CHD, the coronary arteries (tubes) that take blood to the heart are narrow or blocked. This happens when cholesterol and fatty material, called plaque (“plak”), build up inside the arteries.
Plaque is caused by:
- Too much fat and cholesterol in the blood
- High blood pressure
- Too much sugar in the blood (usually because of diabetes)
When plaque blocks an artery, it’s hard for blood to flow to the heart. A blocked artery can cause chest pain or a heart attack. Learn more about CHD.
The Basics: Signs of Heart Attack
What is a heart attack?
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is suddenly blocked. Part of the heart may die if the person doesn’t get help quickly.
Some common signs of a heart attack include:
- Pain or discomfort in the center or left side of the chest – or a feeling of pressure, squeezing, or fullness
- Pain or discomfort in the upper body – like the arms, back, shoulders, neck, jaw, or upper stomach (above the belly button)
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing (while resting or being active)
- Feeling sick to your stomach or throwing up
- Stomach ache or feeling like you have heartburn
- Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or unusually tired
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
Not everyone who has a heart attack will have all the signs. Learn more about the signs of a heart attack.
Don’t ignore changes in how you feel.
Signs of a heart attack often come on suddenly. But sometimes, they develop slowly – hours, days, or even weeks before a heart attack happens.
Talk to your doctor if you feel unusually tired for several days, or if you develop any new health problems (like pain or trouble breathing). It's also important to talk to your doctor if existing health issues (like pain) are bothering you more than usual.
If you’ve had a heart attack in the past, it’s important to know that symptoms of a new heart attack might be different from your last one – so talk with your doctor if you have any concerns about how you feel.
The Basics: When to Call 911
Call 911 right away if you or someone else has signs of a heart attack.
Don’t ignore any signs or feel embarrassed to call for help. Acting fast can save a life. Call 911 even if you aren't sure it’s a heart attack.
An ambulance is the best and safest way to get to the hospital. In an ambulance, EMTs (emergency medical technicians) can keep track of how you are doing and start life-saving treatments right away.
People who call an ambulance often get treated faster at the hospital. And, if you call 911, the operator can tell you what to do until the ambulance gets there.