Are Heart Attacks Always Fatal?

The thought of having a heart attack is scary. Each year, you hear stories about people suffering fatal heart attacks at an age that always seems too young. But are all heart attacks fatal? The short answer is no, but it’s more complicated than that.

Pain in heart

Are heart attacks always fatal? | Zinkevych/iStock/Getty Images

Heart attack symptoms may start weeks before you notice them

In the movies, it looks like heart attacks come on suddenly, with no signs or symptoms beforehand. While this is possible, most heart attacks show themselves before they become severe — and their signs and symptoms can start weeks in advance. If you start to feel recurrent chest pain that comes and goes, it may be a sign that a heart attack is on its way. It’s called angina, and it is pressure in your chest due reduced blood flow to the heart. Angina may start a few days or weeks before a severe heart attack hits,  but some people confuse angina for indigestion and don’t seek help. Indigestion is common, but if you start to experience what you think is indigestion more frequently than normal, call your doctor — it could be something much more serious.

Today, only about 10% of heart attacks are fatal

Despite the common understanding that heart attacks are extremely deadly, roughly 90% of people survive heart attacks today. That’s in part due to medical advances that help doctors act quickly to stabilize the heart. But it’s also due to people becoming more aware of concerning symptoms. According to Harvard Health, at least a 50% reduction in heart attack deaths can be attributed to the use of aspirin during symptoms and procedures that open the arteries in ways they couldn’t decades earlier.

However, there is still more to be done to continue to make heart attacks less deadly. People should be getting annual physicals to check things such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Plus, most physicals give an electrocardiogram, which will point out any major issues with the heart. Also, if you notice anything unusual about your heart’s behavior, don’t hesitate. It’s always better get things checked out than potentially react too late.

But heart attacks can lead to more deadly heart problems, such as sudden cardiac arrest

Heart attacks, medically known as myocardial infarction, are much more curable than they once were. However, major heart problems can still stem from having a heart attack. Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating. And in 95% of cases, SCA is fatal. It often is caused by underlying heart damage, such as a past heart attack that has put added strain on the heart.

Heart disease is still the No. 1 cause of death in the United States. In 2016, 635,000 people died from heart disease, according to the CDC. Despite heart attacks having a 90% survival rate, taking care of your heart to ensure you don’t have a heart attack is extremely important. Consuming a diet heavy in sodium and fats plus not getting enough exercise is a recipe for problems such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which can eventually lead to heart attack. Make sure to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables each day and get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week to keep your heart as healthy as possible.

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