A red illustration of a heart beat.
Be aware of these signs and symptoms of heart troubles. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Americans were saddened when beloved ‘Growing Pains’ actor Alan Thicke, 69, died of a ruptured aorta. Sadness grew when actress and author Carrie Fisher, 60, also died of presumed heart-related problems.

We all started Googling heart attack symptoms, signs of a heart attack, and other such keywords.

It’s an important topic, especially at this time of year. We spoke with Thomas Boyden, MD, the medical director for Preventive Cardiology with the Spectrum Health Medical Group, to get you the answers you’re seeking.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when the flow of blood to the heart becomes blocked, robbing the organ of oxygen. If blood flow isn’t restored quickly, the heart muscle begins to die.

The most common source of this kind of heart blockage is coronary artery disease—a narrowing of the coronary arteries caused by the buildup of a fatty substance called plaque within the artery walls.

Physical exertion can kick off a heart attack by causing the plaque to burst through the inner wall of the artery. A clot naturally forms at the site of the rupture, and if the clot is large, it can block the flow of blood through the vessel.

Here in the snowbelt, heart attack dangers escalate at this time of year thanks to the cold weather and the shoveling we have to do. Both are major strains on the heart, Dr. Boyden said.

First, shoveling snow instantly boosts a person’s blood pressure. And second, the cold air “can cause arteries to narrow and clamp down on themselves,” which increases the strain on the heart and can cause plaques to rupture in a person with coronary artery disease, Dr. Boyden said.

But having heart disease doesn’t mean a heart attack is inevitable, the doctor said. You can reduce your heart attack risk by being careful not to overexert and by listening to your body’s signals.

Top 2 heart attack warning signs:

1. Heaviness or pressure in the chest

“People talk about an elephant sitting on the chest or a ton of bricks on the chest,” Dr. Boyden said.

If you suddenly develop heavy pain or pressure in the chest that doesn’t go away, even after 15 or 20 minutes, and if you’re “sweating and nauseous, and the pain is radiating up into your neck, your jaw or your shoulder,” that’s a serious sign that you might be having a heart attack, he said.

Yet, some people experience chest pain without having a heart attack.

“The heaviness can come on when the arteries of your heart get narrow enough to limit the blood flow when you are active,” Dr. Boyden said.

If this type of chest pain consistently goes away when you sit down and rest, you’re likely experiencing angina, not a heart attack, he said. Talk with your doctor about angina treatment.

2. Significant shortness of breath

If you’re having a hard time catching your breath and the feeling doesn’t match the kind of activity you’re doing, that’s another warning sign.

“Shortness of breath is a little bit less specific to the heart, but it definitely can be a symptom,” Dr. Boyden said.

If you think you might be having a heart attack, seek medical attention immediately. Either call 911 or have someone drive you to the hospital emergency department.

In addition, Dr. Boyden said, you could take a full-dose aspirin (325 milligrams), because this “has been shown to reduce people dying from heart attacks if taken quickly.”

Risk factors

Coronary artery disease is all too common in the United States today, and it has several risk factors:

  • Age—over 45 for men, over 55 for women
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Family history of early heart disease

The more risk factors you have, the more seriously you ought to take your symptoms, Dr. Boyden said.

An EKG and a stress test with an ultrasound of the heart can help determine whether your heart has limited blood flow because of blockages, and can give you an idea of your heart attack risk.

Preventing heart disease

There’s hope.

Coronary artery disease can be avoided by practicing good habits, Dr. Boyden said.

“I think most of us in the medical community would agree that coronary artery disease is essentially a preventable disease,” he said. The problem is, “unhealthy habits put us at high risk of developing coronary artery disease.”

He pointed to 6 lifestyle choices that make a big difference:

  • Healthy eating habits—“Diet is the No. 1 thing people can focus on,” Dr. Boyden said. “The closer you get to a plant-based diet, the healthier your cardiovascular system will be.”
  • Physical activity—It’s not that you have to go to the gym, the doctor said. Just be active in your everyday life by using the stairs, taking walks and avoiding your easy chair.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Not smoking
  • Not drinking alcohol excessively
  • Controlling stress—“Stress plays a major role in developing coronary artery disease because your body responds to that stress in abnormal ways, and plaque buildup is one of them,” Dr. Boyden said. “You have to find ways to decompress on a daily basis and restore a stress-free environment for yourself.”