Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. suffers a heart attack. The thought of experiencing one yourself sure is scary but thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do to help protect your heart.

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Did you know in the U.S., someone suffers a heart attack every 40 seconds? Chances are you know at least one person who's had a heart attack and the thought of experiencing on yourself can certainly be scary. The good news is, you can reduce your risk for heart attacks by making wise lifestyle changes. Read on to find out what a heart attack is, the risk factors and how you can regularly make small wins for better well-being in the long run.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to the heart is reduced or cut off completely. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. When the blood flow is restricted or cut off, parts of the muscles do not receive oxygen and nutrients. The lack of oxygen causes damage to the heart muscle. The extent of the damage, however, can vary.

The heart can recover from the heart attack by forming scar tissue. But, the heart may no longer be in its best shape, where it may not pump blood as effectively and efficiently it previously did.

Surprising or not, you can have a heart attack without even knowing it, simply because they do not always show the classic symptoms of excruciating chest pain and sudden shortness of breath, like what you see in movies.

A heart attack is different from a cardiac arrest. With cardiac arrest, the heart beats abnormally fast and out of its normal rhythm or stops beating all of a sudden.

The analogy between the two is a plumbing issue for the former and an electrical problem for the latter. Though the two are different, a heart attack may cause a cardiac arrest.

Why does a heart attack occur?

If heart attacks are known as the silent killer, then what is the cause behind this?

Atherosclerosis, a condition where fat, cholesterol and other substances, collectively known as plaque, deposit along the lining of the coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle, hardens the once flexible and elastic arterial walls.

Over time, the plaque also restricts the blood flow, making it a narrow passage for blood flow.

The plaque may also burst, forming a blood clot by blocking the blood flow, or it may break apart to travel in the bloodstream.

Foreseeing a heart attack isn't always likely, as there are often no symptoms associated with atherosclerosis. By the time you notice any symptoms, though, your arteries may likely be so narrowed or clogged where the blood supply is severely impacted. But thankfully, there are a number of risk factors we know can increase your chances of having a heart attack. By being aware of your risk, you're better prepared to care for your heart—and your health overall.

An illustration of a human heart with holes poked in it
Credit: Getty Images / CSA Images

These 6 Things Could Make You More Likely to Get a Heart Attack

Several factors can increase your risk of having a heart attack. According to the American Heart Association, there are risk factors that you cannot change, such as your gender, age, ethnicity and family history of heart disease. But don't sweat—there are other risk factors that you can address, including:

1. You have high-blood cholesterol

Your liver makes cholesterol, a waxy substance that plays an essential role in hormone production, cell membrane structure and more.

When you hear or read about high blood cholesterol levels, they refer to lipoproteins, a substance that carries cholesterol in the bloodstream.

A high level of LDL, also known as low-density lipoproteins (or the "bad" cholesterol), present in your blood means that there is a lot of cholesterol transported by these lipoproteins. Having a high level of LDL present poses a risk for atherosclerosis, which in the long run, may lead to a heart attack.

And despite what you my have previously heard about cholesterol, eating foods that contain cholesterol, such as those found in egg yolk, meat, shrimp and full-fat dairy products, may not necessarily raise your blood cholesterol. Instead, a diet high in saturated fat and trans fat may increase the LDL cholesterol level.

2. You have high triglycerides

Along with an elevated LDL level, a high triglyceride level puts you at an even higher risk of developing atherosclerosis.

Triglycerides are the most common type of fat found in the body. Stored inside the fat cells, they are also present in the food you eat.

Your body can convert some of the foods you eat into triglycerides.

Specifically, when you eat more calories than your body needs, over do it on high-fat foods or those with simple carbohydrates (like soda and sweets), the excess is transformed into triglycerides and stored as body fat.

In other words, making changes to your diet may help lower your LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, consequently decreasing your risk for heart attacks.

You can reduce your LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels by:

1. Reducing saturated fats in your diet: The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 5 to 6 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat. This percentage is equivalent to 13 grams per day based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

You can find saturated fat in meat, dairy products and some plant-based oils such as coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil.

Replacing some saturated fats with healthier fats, such as monousaturated and unsaturated fats found in olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds and fish, would help improve your blood cholesterol.

In particular, omega-3 fats, a form of unsaturated fats present in flaxseeds, walnuts and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, may also reduce blood clots.

2. Eating more whole grains: A diet that consists of whole grains may reduce your risk of heart disease. Specifically, recent research from Tufts University suggests that eating whole grains may help maintain a healthy waistline and improve blood pressure, blood sugar, triglyceride and cholesterol levels.

These improved parameters may be due to the feelings of fullness that whole grains provide. Soluble fiber, a type of dietary fiber found in oats and barley, may also prevent sudden spikes in blood sugar, thereby helping one better control their blood sugar levels, specifically those living with diabetes.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans for 2020-2025 recommends eating at least three servings of whole grains per day, with one serving equivalent to a half cup of oatmeal, one slice of whole-grain bread, or a half cup of brown rice.

3. Eating more plant-based foods: Plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes and tofu provide numerous nutritional benefits. They're lower in calories and saturated fat and higher in dietary fiber, potassium and other helpful nutrients. According to research, incorporating plant-based foods as part of your diet may reduce your risk for heart disease and other chronic diseases.

A plant-based diet is different from vegetarian and vegan diets, where the former is more flexible than the other two, in which you can still include animal proteins in small amounts.

More importantly, this diet focuses on including whole foods and non-processed foods.

To reap the most health benefits from plant-based style eating, follow the USDA MyPlate by including half a plate of whole vegetables and fruits, whole grains for one-quarter of the plate, and plant-based proteins for the remaining quarter.

If a plant-based diet is a new concept to you, look for opportunities to replace meat with a plant-based protein with recipes you already make. For example, instead of using ground beef to make chili, use beans. You can also substitute processed foods with whole foods, like using whole fruit instead of canned fruit packed in syrup.

3. You're drinking too much alcohol

Your liver breaks down alcohol and converts it to cholesterol and triglycerides. Having said that, when you consume alcohol excessively, it can raise both cholesterol and triglyceride levels in your body.

If you drink regularly, cap your consumption to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. One drink is equivalent to 1 ½ fluid ounces of spirits, such as vodka, gin, bourbon or scotch, five fluid ounces of wine or 12 fluid ounces of regular beer.

While moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits, it is best not to start if you do not drink at all.

4. You're not exercising enough

Engaging in regular exercise promotes a healthy heart. Specifically, it encourages the growth of coronary collateral blood vessels.

In other words, physical activity may increase the number of small blood vessels connecting to the major arteries to the heart. Suppose one of these arteries becomes blocked; then, these collateral blood vessels serve as an alternate route to supply oxygen and nutrients to the heart area that would have otherwise experienced a heart attack due to restricted blood flow.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition, recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week or a combination of activities of both intensities throughout the week.

Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise includes brisk walking, gardening and biking, while vigorous aerobic activities involve making you sweat, such as running, jumping ropes, yard work that involves digging and more.

5. You smoke or are around secondhand smoke

The combination of carbon monoxide and nicotine from cigarette smoking may increase your risk for heart attack.

When you smoke cigarettes, you inhale carbon monoxide. This harmful gas does not only reduce the amount of oxygen carried by your red blood cells; it also causes cholesterol to get deposited in the inner lining of your arteries, leading to atherosclerosis.

Nicotine may also harden the walls of the arteries. As time passes, the restriction of blood flow may lead to a heart attack.

You will also be at risk for heart attacks if you are a non-smoker exposed to secondhand smoke. Your risk of developing heart disease is also 25 to 30 percent higher than those not exposed to it.

So, make a plan to quit smoking or minimize your exposure to secondhand smoke could save your heart.

6. You're stressed

Lastly, you cannot underestimate how stress affects your heart. While stress itself does not directly trigger a heart attack, it may affect your well-being by influencing how you make your lifestyle choices.

For instance, people who experience long-term stress may overeat, choose less nutritious foods, start smoking or smoke more frequently, consume more alcohol than the recommended amount and more.

All these behaviors may contribute to your overall lipid profile and heart health. That said, recognizing the underlying stressors and managing them is a must.

Some activities that you can engage in to manage your stress include exercise, yoga, meditation and making it a priority to get plenty of sleep each night.

Bottom line

While there are some things you can't control, like your age, genetics and gender, you can make lifestyle changes to protect your heart and reduce your likelihood of experiencing a heart attack. Don't wait until it is too late. Start making changes, one step at a time, today!