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This is the #1 Reason Why Most People Get Heart Attacks

Learn why so many people have heart attacks and how to help prevent one. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Every 40 seconds someone in the United States has a heart attack and 1 in 5 people have a heart attack and don't even realize they've had one because their symptoms are mild, but can still often leave damage to the heart, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart attacks are far too common, but the World Health Organization states, "80% of premature heart attacks and strokes are preventable. Healthy diet, regular physical activity, and not using tobacco products are the keys to prevention. Checking and controlling risk factors for heart disease and stroke such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar or diabetes is also very important." Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with Eric Stahl, MD Non-Invasive Cardiologist at Staten Island University Hospital who explains why so many people have heart attacks and how to help prevent one. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What to Know About Heart Attacks

​​Dr. Stahl says, "A heart attack occurs when the blood flow in a coronary artery is disrupted, preventing oxygen from being delivered to the heart muscle. The most common cause of heart attacks is due to atherosclerosis or fatty plaque buildup in the coronary arteries. As the plaque builds, the arteries narrow and harden. When plaque disrupts, a blood clot will form within the artery and block blood flow. About 805,000 people have heart attacks in the USA each year." 


What Heart Attacks Can Feel Like

Young woman suffering from breathing problem near window indoors.

"When people have a heart attack, they typically feel left sided chest pain, discomfort or pressure," says Dr. Stahl. "However, everyone is different and symptoms can vary. Other associated symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness, jaw pain or left arm pain." 


Why Heart Attacks are so Common

woman holding heart

Dr. Stahl explains, "Every year, approximately 805,000 people have a heart attack in the USA. Heart attacks and coronary artery disease are common because of the high prevalence of risk factors. Smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, sedentary lifestyle and poor diet all contribute to atherosclerosis and the development of coronary artery disease and heart attacks."


How Preventable are Heart Attacks?

doctor holding heart

According to Dr. Stahl, "Preventing coronary artery disease and heart attacks relies on reducing modifiable risk factors. Age, gender, and genetics are risk factors that cannot be changed. On the other hand, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, sedentary lifestyle and poor diet can be improved, treated, or controlled. Addressing these risk factors should begin early in life."



stop smoking

"Smoking remains the most preventable cause of death in the USA," Dr. Stahl reminds us. "Cigarette smoke is made up of numerous chemical compounds that promote accelerated atherosclerosis and blood clots. Even smoking fewer than 5 cigarettes per day leads to early atherosclerosis. The risk of coronary artery disease and heart attacks increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day. Quitting smoking has an immediate impact on reducing cardiovascular disease risk." 


High Cholesterol

HDL cholesterol

Dr. Stahl tells us, "As high cholesterol develops, fatty deposits build in the arteries of the heart leading to heart attacks. Genetics, diet, physical activity, and obesity are some of the major risk factors for high cholesterol. As plaque builds, the arteries narrow and can cause symptoms even if the arteries are not completely blocked."




"Diabetes increases the risk of coronary artery disease by two- to four-fold," Dr. Stahl shares. "It does so by causing elevated cholesterol, obesity and a general inflammatory state, which all promote accelerated atherosclerosis and fatty plaque buildup. Approximately 68% of those with diabetes over the age of 65 die of some form of heart disease."


High Blood Pressure

high blood pressure

Dr. Stahl says, "High blood pressure increases the pressure on the heart. Over time, uncontrolled hypertension causes the heart muscle to thicken and promotes atherosclerosis within the coronary arteries. Although the thicker muscle requires more blood to be delivered, the progressively narrower arteries deliver less and less. This process eventually leads to symptoms and a possible heart attack."  

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather