A person may be able to reduce their risk of experiencing a heart attack by managing their risk factors and living a heart-healthy lifestyle.

A heart attack, which doctors may call myocardial infarction, is a serious medical emergency. It occurs when part of the heart muscle stops receiving enough blood.

In the United States, about 805,000 people per year experience a heart attack. A heart attack occurs roughly every 40 seconds.

However, people can help reduce their risk of experiencing a heart attack by making lifestyle changes that can positively affect heart health and managing any existing health conditions.

This article explores risk factors for heart attack, tips to help prevent a heart attack, and when to contact a doctor.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Risk factors are traits or habits that can put a person at a higher risk of a heart attack. A person may be able to change some of these risk factors.

About half of the U.S. population has at least one of the three main risk factors for heart disease, which can also contribute to heart attack. These are:

The following risk factors also have associations with heart attack and heart disease:

Psychosocial factors such as depression, financial stress, family conflicts, and stressful life events may also contribute to a heart attack.

Heart attack risk factors that people cannot modify include:

  • Older age: The risk increases in males after age 45 and in females after age 55 or menopause.
  • Sex: Males are more likely to experience heart attacks and may have them at a younger age, but females have a greater risk of dying from a heart attack.
  • Genetics: A person whose parent, child, or sibling has a history of early cardiovascular disease has a higher risk of heart attack.
  • Ethnicity and race: Mexican American, American Indian, native Hawaiian, and some Asian American people have a higher risk of heart disease. Black people have disproportionately high rates of severe high blood pressure, which may develop earlier in life and increase the risk of heart attack. Healthcare inequities may contribute to these disparities.

Learn more about cardiovascular disease and race.

People may use the American Heart Association’s Check. Change. Control. Calculator to learn more about their risk for heart disease and stroke.

Alternatively, a person can learn more about their individual risk factors for heart attack by speaking with a healthcare professional.

A healthy diet may help a person manage risk factors for heart attack, such as high blood pressure and obesity. A balanced and nutritious diet may include:

A person may use nutrition labels to help them limit foods high in salt, added sugars, trans fats, and saturated fats. People may also limit processed foods and refined carbohydrates.

A 2020 review found that any moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is better than none in reducing a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and death.

Following the recommendations of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans could help reduce a person’s risk of death and cardiovascular disease. However, even if a person does not meet those guidelines, any physical activity can contribute to beneficial outcomes.

The guidelines recommend that adults perform at least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week, as well as muscle-strengthening exercises at least twice a week.

Many people are living with conditions that put them at higher risk of a heart attack, such as:

A person should speak with their doctor about treating and managing any existing health conditions. People should also take any medications according to a doctor’s instructions and speak with their doctor about any side effects. A doctor may be able to recommend a different treatment if a person’s current treatment is not effective.

Overweight or obesity can increase a person’s risk of developing CVD — particularly coronary heart disease and heart failure, which may increase a person’s risk of heart attack.

High body weight may cause changes in heart structure and blood flow and lead to atherosclerosis.

Smoking is a major cause of CVD and is responsible for 1 in 4 deaths from CVD. Some research suggests that people who smoke are three times more likely to die of cardiovascular causes than people who do not smoke.

Quitting smoking benefits a person regardless of how long they have smoked. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reports that quitting smoking may reduce the risk of heart attack and death in those with existing disease by half or more.

People who do not smoke but have exposure to secondhand smoke at work or home have a 25–30% increased risk of developing heart disease.

Experts recommend that adults limit alcohol to one drink or less daily for females and two drinks or less daily for males. Alcohol consumption has associations with a number of health risks, including high blood pressure, which can increase a person’s risk of heart attack.

Experts are still researching the link between stress and high blood pressure. However, stress may contribute to other heart attack and high blood pressure risk factors, such as unhealthy eating habits.

A 2017 study found that stress may affect a part of the brain called the amygdala. Increased amygdala activity could lead to inflammation of the arteries. This, in turn, may lead to heart attack, stroke, or other forms of CVD.

A person with existing health conditions that increase their risk of heart attack should speak with their doctor about the best ways to reduce their risk.

A heart attack is a medical emergency. People should immediately call 911 if they notice symptoms of a heart attack in themselves or others.

Symptoms to look out for include:

There are many ways to reduce the risk of a heart attack, such as exercising regularly, managing existing medical conditions, and maintaining a moderate weight. A person should speak with their doctor about possible risk factors and ways to manage them.

A person who notices symptoms of a heart attack should immediately call 911. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, and dizziness.