What Happens During a Heart Attack?

The primary organ of the cardiovascular system is the heart, and is the muscle that continuously pumps blood to the rest of the body. The heart's blood supply comes by way of the coronary arteries, carrying the oxygen and nutrients required for it to function properly. Red blood cells (RBCs), white blood cells (WBCs), and other substances flow freely to the heart. The red blood cells carry oxygen, while the function of the white blood cells is to fight infection.

When a person is healthy, the artery walls are smooth and uniform in thickness, However, as time goes on, a high level of cholesterol circulates, causing fatty deposits called plaque to accumulate on the interior walls of the arteries.

As the plaque deposits onto the artery wall, it hardens making the artery more narrow and not as flexible as it should be. This is called atherosclerosis. If atherosclerosis develops in the coronary arteries, it becomes a condition called coronary artery disease (CAD)

When blood flow to the heart is blocked, a heart attack (myocardial infarction, MI) can result. If blockage of a coronary artery extends past 90%, there is an increased risk for a heart attack. When plaque completely blocks or occludes a coronary artery, the risk for heart attack is certain.

The development of a blood clot can also increase the risk for a heart attack. It is common for a crack to develop at the site of the plaque buildup. Blood can coagulate, or clump, at the site of the crack forming a blood clot. This blood clot, or thrombus, can grow to totally block blood flow and cause a myocardial infarction.

The extent of damage the heart acquires during an attack depends largely on the location of the blockage and the speed of obtaining medical treatment. The longer it takes to get help the more intense the heart damage. Fortunately, atherosclerosis can be preceded, thus lowering the risk of having a heart attack.

It is important to slow the progress of the disease process. This can be accomplished by medications, and reducing your risk factors. You can reduce risk factors by losing excess weight, starting a low fat – low cholesterol – low saturated fat diet, quitting smoking, control of diabetes and hypertension if present, and regular exercise.

In an ideal world everyone would get complete instructions and education on how to reduce their risk factors for heart disease, but due to shortened hospital stays this is not always possible. Take the time to educate yourself to stay healthy.