Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack. And each year nearly 800,000 Americans will suffer a heart attack. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of deaths in Americans.

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the main cause of heart attack, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A less common cause is a severe spasm, or sudden contraction, of a coronary artery that can stop blood flow to the heart muscle.

A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction, happens when a part of the heart muscle doesn’t get enough blood. The more time that passes without treatment to restore blood flow, the greater the damage to the heart muscle.

About 47% of people suffer a fatal heart attack outside the hospital setting, which suggests they may have ignored their early warning signs and symptoms such as chest pain, discomfort in the back or arms, nausea and shortness of breath.

Dr. Gary Niess

“The ‘widow-maker’ is a lay term for a particular type of heart attack,” said Dr. Gary Niess, an interventional cardiologist with Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute. “Any artery closure can cause a heart attack where the heart muscle dies, but the widow-maker has a higher rate of mortality.”

The widow-maker is a massive heart attack that occurs when the left anterior descending artery (LAD) is totally or almost completely blocked. The critical blockage in the artery stops, usually a blood clot, stops all the blood flow to the left side of the heart, causing the heart to stop beating normally. When this happens, patients may go into cardiac arrest. Statistically, Niess said widow-makers are more likely to lead to brain injury and irregular heartbeat.

Although blockages can occur in other arteries leading to the heart, the LAD artery is where most blockages occur. The extent of the blockage can vary widely from 1% to 100%.

“Many people can survive widow-makers if we get them treatment right away,” Niess said. And the patient’s blocked artery can often be reopened with a stent, he added.

Like other types of heart attack, this one is largely preventable. “It may sound trite, but don’t smoke, eat right, exercise, treat your cholesterol and high blood pressure,” Niess said.

Risk factors for heart disease

Two of the most serious causes of heart disease in America are diabetes and obesity, according to the CDC. “Diabetes affects the heart muscle like smoking two to three packs of cigarettes a day,” he said.

Despite its name, the widow-maker doesn’t discriminate. Women are susceptible, too. “In this case, it’s a widower-maker,” Niess said.

Several other medical conditions and lifestyle choices can also put people at a higher risk for heart disease, including:

  • High blood pressure.
  • High blood cholesterol.
  • Smoking.
  • Being overweight or obese.
  • Having an unhealthy diet.
  • Physical activity.
  • Excessive alcohol use.

Symptoms of a heart attack

The chances for surviving heart attack are higher if you recognize the warning signs and seek prompt attention. Major symptoms include:

  • · Chest pain.
  • · Aches and pain in the arms, back, neck or jaw.
  • · Shortness of breath.
  • · Nausea.
  • · Dizziness.
  • · Cold sweats.

The most common symptoms vary depending on your sex. Both men and women will often complain of chest pain when experiencing a heart attack, but some women are more likely to experience other symptoms such as shortness of breath or nausea.

If you suspect you are having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately. Do not drive yourself to the hospital. Cardiac arrest en route by car is often fatal. Arriving by ambulance offers a much better chance of survival.

Calculate your heart age

Do you know how old your heart is? 75% of adults are living with a heart age older than it should be. That means our hearts are aging quicker than our bodies. Calculate your heart age here.

And download our women’s health guide.