General Information

A heart attack, also known as a ‘myocardial infarction’ or ‘coronary’, is when the blood supply to part of your heart muscle is blocked, causing damage to your heart. The blockage is usually caused by a blood clot forming in one of the coronary arteries (major blood vessels ) that supply blood to your heart. This is more likely to happen if your arteries have become narrowed.

The narrowing of the arteries develops over many years and is caused by fatty deposits, or plaque, building up on your artery walls. This is called atherosclerosis or coronary artery disease.

Exactly what causes the plaque build-up in the arteries is not fully understood. However, there are risk factors which increase your chances of developing coronary artery disease and having a heart attack.

Heart disease risk factors

  • increasing age
  • being male
  • a previous history of heart disease
  • a family history of heart disease  
  • smoking
  • obesity
  • poor diet
  • raised blood cholesterol or triglycerides
  • raised blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • low levels of exercise
  • stress

Heart risk assessments

Your health professional can estimate your risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next 5 years. This assessment includes measuring your blood cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

These results can help you and your health professional to plan any necessary lifestyle changes, medications and ongoing monitoring to reduce your level of heart risk. If the results show you may be at moderate or higher risk, a more detailed examination might be recommended.

In general, a risk assessment is a good idea if you are:

  • a man older than 45 years
  • a woman older than 55 years

But you should have a risk assessment at a younger age (a man older than 35 years, a woman older than 45 years) if you:

  • smoke
  • are overweight
  • have high cholesterol, triglycerides or blood pressure
  • have a family history of cardiovascular disease or diabetes

See Your Pharmacist or Medical Professional

  • if you have symptoms such as chest pain; you should seek medical help immediately by calling 000
  • if you think you would benefit from a heart risk assessment

Treatment Tips

Tips for a healthy heart:

  • eat a healthy diet high in fruit, vegetables and fibre, and low in fat, sugar and salt; increase your consumption of fish as this has a protective effect on the heart
  • maintain a healthy bodyweight
  • drink plenty of water
  • gradually increase your level of physical activity to 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on most, if not all days of the week (if very overweight, discuss with your doctor the best exercise options for you)
  • stop smoking
  • limit your alcohol intake (and aim to have at least 2 alcohol-free days each week)
  • make time to relax

Treatment Options

Medicines to reduce risk of blood clots and heart attack

[GENERAL SALE]
e.g. aspirin (Astrix, Cardiprin 100, Cartia, DBL Aspirin, Nyal Low Dose Aspirin, Solprin)

  • aspirin can be taken daily (75 to 150 mg) to help prevent heart attacks and some types of strokes. Some of the above products (e.g. Solprin) would need to be cut in half for this dose.
  • aspirin works by thinning your blood, and reducing the chance of blood clots forming in your arteries
  • this treatment is often referred to as ‘low-dose aspirin’ because the doses used are much lower than those for treating pain or fever
  • taking low-dose aspirin on a long-term basis is not suitable for everyone; you should discuss this with your pharmacist or GP
  • side effects of aspirin can include stomach irritation and ulcers

Medicines to reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels

[PHARMACIST ONLY]
e.g. nicotinic acid (Nicotinic Acid)

  • only nicotinic acid is available from a pharmacist; all the other cholesterol and triglyceride-lowering medications are currently only available on prescription

[PRESCRIPTION ONLY]
e.g. simvastatin (Lipex, Simvar, Simvastatin Winthrop, Simvastatin-Spirit, Simvasyn, Vytorin, Zocor), pravastatin (Lipostat, Pravachol, Pravastatin, Pravastatin Winthrop), atorvastatin (Caduet, Lipitor), fluvastatin Lescol XL Tablets, rosuvastatin (Crestor), ezetimibe (Ezetrol), cholestyramine (Questran Lite), colestipol (Colestid Granules for Oral Suspension), fenofibrate (Lipidil), gemfibrozil (Ausgem, Gemhexal, Pharmacor Gemfibrozil)

  • medicines to reduce cholesterol or triglycerides may be needed if diet and lifestyle changes are not enough on their own
  • treatment is often life-long
  • some of these medications may cause muscle pain; always discuss this with your doctor
  • it is important to take prescribed medications for cholesterol or triglycerides every day, even if you are not aware of any symptoms from your high cholesterol levels

[GENERAL SALE]
e.g. Benefiber, Metamucil (sugar-free available), Fybogel, Nucolox

  • these products are fibre supplements and known as bulk-forming laxatives
  • they can help reduce cholesterol levels, in combination with a low-fat diet
  • they are not absorbed by your body and do not interact with other medicines
  • drink plenty of water when taking fibre supplements
  • do not lie down immediately after taking a dose
  • if you have diabetes, check with your pharmacist for an appropriate product, as most contain sugar
  • if you are considering taking fibre supplements to reduce your cholesterol level, you should discuss this with your pharmacist or GP first

Medicines to reduce high blood pressure

[PRESCRIPTION ONLY]
e.g. beta blockers such as atenolol (Tenormin, Tensig), diuretics such as hydrochlorothiazide (Accuretic, Dithiazide), ACE inhibitors such as perindopril (Coversyl)

  • many people will need more than one type of blood pressure medication to reduce their blood pressure to a sufficiently low level
  • treatment is often life-long
  • it is important to take prescribed medications for blood pressure every day, even if you aren’t aware of any symptoms from your high blood pressure
  • do not stop taking blood pressure medicines unless your doctor advises you to.
  • it would be helpful to monitor your blood pressure at home in order to give daily readings to your pharmacist or doctor

Complementary products

  • fish oils containing omega-3 fatty acids may have a beneficial effect on triglyceride levels; eating fish in moderate quantities may achieve the same effect as taking fish oil supplements
  • plant sterol spreads have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels when used in recommended amounts
  • garlic (Allium sativum) is claimed to help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the chance of blood clots forming, but there is not a lot of scientific evidence to support its use
  • garlic can cause increased bleeding when used with aspirin or warfarin

More Information

For more information see the link at Related Health Information below.

Availability of medicines

  • GENERAL SALE available through pharmacies and possibly other retail outlets.
  • PHARMACY ONLY available for sale through pharmacies only.
  • PHARMACIST ONLY may only be sold by a pharmacist.
  • PRESCRIPTION ONLY available only with a prescription from your doctor or other health professional.

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Last Reviewed: 08/12/2009

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