Heart Attack: Comprehensive Definition And Alarming Statistics

A heart attack (called myocardial infarction in medical terms) is defined as damage to or death of part of heart muscle wall because the supply of oxygen-rich blood to that part is severely restricted or totally stopped.

However, before we go into more details about the heart attack, I am tempted to talk a little bit of the heart itself, as an organ.

The Incredible Heart

The heart is a pump, which pumps blood to every part of the body. It does so 24 x 7 for all the years that you live, at a normal rate of about 72 beats per minute.

Just imagine this, and it makes one wonder what a remarkable thing the heart is, that Providence has created. The heart contracts and relaxes without a moment’s rest for all those years of our life by generating its own electricity.

Over an average lifetime, the heart beats about 2.5 billion times, pumping out million of gallons of blood containing oxygen, fuel, hormones, nutrients and a host of other essential items to every cell of the body in order that each performs its function. It also carries away the waste generated by the metabolism from every cell.

However, the heart too has its limits. We abuse it with our wrong lifestyle habits, smoking, drinking, a sedentary lifestyle, and stressing it out, causing damage to it.

That is when the heart protests and you develop heart conditions. A heart attack is one such condition, which can kill. However, timely medical intervention has saved many lives.

What is a heart attack?

In an absolute nonprofessional’s language, a heart attack is a “cry of the heart” asking for oxygen.

Sometimes, the blood supply to a part of the heart muscle is interrupted or blocked due to a clot or due to the buildup of fat, cholesterol and such other substances in the lumen of the coronary artery. The coronary arteries supply blood to the heart muscle wall. This results in a heart attack, which the medical fraternity refers to as myocardial infarction.

Most heart attacks result from years of silent but progressive coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD is also known by other names: coronary heart disease, ischemic heart disease, and atherosclerotic heart disease. A heart attack is classically characterized by pain in the chest. These coronary arteries run on the surface of the heart and are relatively narrow, thus being more prone to being blocked easily and causing a heart attack.

Image showing dead heart muscle of the heart caused by a heart attack and the coronary artery blocked by the cholesterol plaque buildup

What is a massive heart attack?

A massive heart attack involves a large portion of the heart muscle. This happens when a large coronary artery supplying blood to a large portion of the heart muscle is blocked and the affected portion of the heart muscle is deprived of blood for a long time.

A massive heart attack can cause the heart to stop completely and cause sudden death. If the patient survives, the massive heart attack can cause complications such as heart failure, cardiac arrhythmias and can predispose to another attack.

What is a silent heart attack?

Most of the times, a heart attack presents with signs and symptoms, but sometimes, in spite of having a heart attack, the person may not experience any chest pain or shortness of breath or any other symptoms. Such a heart attack is called a silent heart attack.

According to the Wikipedia, at least 25% of all heart attacks are estimated to be silent without the patients showing any symptoms.

Silent heart attacks are more common in the elderly, in people with diabetes mellitus and in patients who have undergone a heart transplant. Some studies indicate that women are more likely to suffer from a silent heart attack than men. The reason for this is unknown.

A silent heart attack puts the person at a greater risk of getting another attack and cardiac complications. The second heart attack also carries a very high risk of mortality.

What happens to the heart during a heart attack?

In a heart attack, the blood supply to the heart has to be restored within 30 to 40 minutes in order to keep the affected part of the heart muscle alive.

If blood supply is not restored within this time, then the heart muscle begins to die. Within 6 to 8 hours, this process of heart muscle damage is complete and that portion of the affected heart muscle becomes completely dead.

This damage is irreversible and the dead part of the heart muscle ultimately turns into scar tissue. Being a scar tissue, it does not contract like the rest of the heart muscle and, therefore, the functioning of the heart gets affected.

A heart attack may be a mild heart attack or a massive heart attack depending on the extent of the heart wall that is affected.

The medical term for a heart attack is myocardial infarction. Myo (muscle) cardium (heart) is the muscle of the heart wall and infarction means the death of the tissue.

Heart Attack statistics: U.S. and worldwide

U.S. statistics

The incidence of heart attack is very high and at present, it is rated as the number one killer in the United States.

The present lifestyle of “Hurry, Worry and Curry” seems to be taking its toll. Forty percent of people who suffer from a heart attack in the United States succumb to it.

According to the American Heart Association, 63% of women and 48% of men who died suddenly of coronary artery disease had no previous symptoms.

Women are less prone than men to suffer from a heart attack, but after menopause, their risk increases and equals that of men.

However, according to the stats for the last 32 years, more women die of a heart attack each year than men do.

1.5 million cases of heart attacks are reported every year in the United States of which more than  half a million die, according to the American Heart Association.

Worldwide stats

Heart attacks are more prevalent in low- and middle-income countries. Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary Argentina are the top five countries with the highest rates of deaths due to heart diseases.

According to the World Heart Federation

  • Total number of deaths in the world due to ischemic heart disease for 2008: 7,254,000
  • Europe: 219,590
  • East Mediterranean: 587,000
  • The American Continent: 881,000
  • Africa: 374,000
  • Southeast Asia: 1,834,000
  • Western Pacific: 1,383,000
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