All heart attacks can cause serious havoc, but some can be more deadly than others.

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.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that coronary artery disease is the most common cause of heart attacks, but less frequently they can also be brought on by a sudden contraction of a coronary artery that stops blood flow to the heart muscle.

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

“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.

Niess said that statistically 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. 

Niess said about one-third of coronary heart disease patients have blockages in one artery, about one-third have blockages in two arteries and one-third have blockages in all three arteries. The extent of the blockage can vary widely from 1 percent to 100 percent.

“A widow-maker becomes a widow-maker when it closes and stops blood flow,” Niess said. 

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

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.

Niess said two of the most serious causes of heart disease in America are diabetes and obesity. “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.

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.

How's your heart health?

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 then sign-up for Vision 2020: a series of simple, fun challenges focused on lowering your heart age and improving your overall health. We hope you’ll join us.

With the demands of juggling work and family, it can be difficult to find time to take care of yourself. Download our women’s health guide today.