Am I Having a Heart Attack?

The basics on stroke, heart attack, and cardiac arrest.

If you were having a stroke, would you know it? Can you tell the difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack? You hear of these three heart conditions all the time, but do you really know what each is? This dangerous trio has this in common: they’re all complications arising from heart or blood vessel diseases and they affect millions.

Knowing the causes and symptoms of each may just save your life.


Defined: A blood clot is formed by fatty deposits (cholesterol or plaque) that build up in the arteries. When a clot dislodges and blocks or ruptures one of the blood vessels leading to the brain, a stroke occurs. If blood can’t reach the brain, the brain is deprived of oxygen. Within minutes, parts of the brain may begin to die.

Symptoms: The telltale symptoms of stroke come on suddenly and include dizziness or loss of balance, trouble speaking, confusion, slurred speech, numbness or paralysis on one side of the face or body, blurred or double vision, or a sudden severe headache. Suffer any of these, and you need treatment immediately. The sooner you receive treatment, the less likely you are to suffer long-term damage, complications, or death.

Risks: Some of the most common risk factors for stroke include a family history of heart disease, being 55 years of age or older, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, cigarette smoking, being overweight, lack of physical activity, heart disease, heavy drinking, use of birth control pills or hormone therapies containing estrogen, or illicit drug use.

Heart Attack

Defined: While a stroke is decreased blood flow to the brain, a heart attack is decreased blood to the heart. When plaque builds up in the coronary arteries (arteries that supply blood to the heart) and causes them to narrow or forms a clot, blood flow is cut off to the heart. When this happens, parts of the heart may become damaged for destroyed.

Symptoms: Common symptoms of a heart attack include intense pressure or pain in the chest that lasts longer than a few minutes; pain that extends to the arms, back, upper abdomen, or even to the jaw and teeth; shortness of breath; fainting; sweating; a feeling of doom; nausea; or vomiting. Symptoms of a heart attack in women may be different and may include abdominal pain or heartburn, clammy skin, unusual fatigue, dizziness, or lightheadedness. And remember that not everyone has the same symptoms, and sometimes there are no symptoms at all. An early warning sign of an impending heart attack is recurrent chest pain after exertion that’s relieved by rest. If you experience any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately.

Risks: Risk factors of heart attack are similar to those of a stroke and include smoking, being male who is older than 45 or a woman older than 55, diabetes, high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels, family history of heart attacks, physical inactivity, being overweight, stress, and the use of illicit drugs.

Cardiac Arrest

Defined: Often, a heart attack is confused with cardiac arrest. Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops beating without warning, usually when an electrical disturbance in the heart muscle causes it to stop pumping. This deprives the body of the oxygenated blood it requires to function. While different from cardiac arrest, a heart attack is a common cause of cardiac arrest. If not treated immediately, an individual suffering cardiac arrest can die within minutes.

Symptoms: Someone with cardiac arrest doesn’t experience a lot of symptoms. Instead, he or she will suddenly collapse, have no pulse, have no breath, and will be unconscious.

Risks: To avoid cardiac arrest, you’ll need to maintain control over the same risk factors that result in heart attack and stroke.


First Step: Prevention

Now that you’ve read about this dangerous trio, you may be ready to exercise and eat a meal of vegetables. After all, the best ways to prevent stroke, heart attack, and cardiac arrest is to keep a healthy lifestyle. So get plenty of physical activity, eat a healthy diet, get enough rest, and lower your stress levels, and you’ll be well on your way to a long, healthy life.

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