Heart attack

Ideas about the causes of a heart attack

Certain medical conditions are associated with an increased risk of having a heart attack. These are high blood pressure, certain forms of heart disease, raised levels of cholesterol in the blood, a family history of heart disease and diabetes. Other factors known to increase the likelihood of having a heart attack are smoking, eating the wrong things, being overweight, not taking enough exercise and ethnicity*.

There is some evidence that for some people, having high levels of stress could be a factor, often because it leads to unhealthy eating, smoking and drinking more alcohol and not being active enough. Men are more likely to have a heart attack than women. People who have had angina for many months or years may also go on to have a heart attack.

However, heart attacks may occur in people who believe that they have none of these risk factors.

Certainly some people we talked to could not think what had caused their heart attack, and had previously thought that they had every reason to expect that they would not have one. Others mentioned specific factors that might have contributed to theirs. Some people, who felt they could not point to a cause, said this made them all the more anxious that they might have another one.

Some had been told by their doctors that smoking had been a major cause. Several older men who had stopped smoking fifteen to thirty years ago felt it couldn't have been a major factor.

One woman was told that high blood cholesterol was the only risk factor that doctors could identify as a reason for her heart attack, which she found disappointing because she had always made an effort to eat healthily. Some people have a hereditary tendency to have high cholesterol, which in an extreme case is called hyperlipidaemia.

Several people felt that being overweight or eating a high fat diet could have contributed to their heart problems. One woman had tried to lose weight for many years without success and said she would have liked more support from her doctor to help her to do that. One man had been told by his doctors that his diet in childhood and during his twenties laid the foundations for a heart attack later on.

One man wondered if stopping his earlier regular strenuous exercise could have contributed to his heart attack.

Working too hard, stress and a busy lifestyle, without taking time to relax or exercise was thought by some to have been a contributing factor.

A few people had had a history of high blood pressure. One woman felt that she would not have had her heart attack had she been given medication to control her high blood pressure. Two men had diabetes, which was controlled with medication. A woman, who had a heart attack when she was 37 years old, had been told that it had been caused by a blood clot in her leg, which had travelled to her heart.

Some people had a family history of heart attack or heart disease. One man with a strong family history of heart disease in his family said he was expecting to have a heart attack when he was in his fifties.

*Rates of high blood pressure and diabetes are higher in people of African and Afro-Caribbean descent, which means that they also have an increased risk of coronary heart disease and heart attacks.

People of South Asian descent (those of Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan origin) are also more likely to develop diabetes compared to white European backgrounds. Again, this also increases their risks of coronary heart disease and heart attacks – NHS choices June 2017.

Last reviewed June 2017.

Last updated June 2017.


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