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What is a "widowmaker" heart attack, and should men be worried?

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While any heart attack can be fatal, the “widowmaker” is the deadliest of them all.

If you watch the show "This Is Us," you're well aware that (spoiler alert) Jack dies from a "widowmaker's heart attack." According to TIME.com, online searches for the phrase spiked more than 5,000 percent in the hours after the episode aired.

As if heart attacks weren't already scary, this one particular kind is dangerous enough to strike fear in anybody. But what exactly is it? How does a "widowmaker" differ from more common heart attacks? And the name implies that men are more at risk – is that true?

Here's what you need to know.

What is a heart attack? According to the American Heart Association, "a heart attack occurs when the blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked (often by a blood clot). This happens because coronary arteries that supply the heart with blood slowly become thicker and harder from a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances, called plaque. If the plaque breaks open and a blood clot forms that blocks the blood flow, a heart attack occurs."

Heart attacks are the number one killer of Americans—someone dies from heart and blood vessel diseases every 34 seconds.

What defines a "widowmaker" heart attack? While any heart attack can be fatal, the "widowmaker" is the deadliest of them all. It occurs when the left anterior descending (LAD) artery, which supplies blood to the larger, front part of the heart, is blocked completely at the origin, says Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Richard Katz, director of the George Washington University Heart and Vascular Institute, told TIME.com that "a widowmaker heart attack occurs when that artery suddenly goes from 80 percent or 90 percent narrowed to 100 percent narrowed. It happens very quickly, and suddenly you're depriving a large chunk of that heart muscle from oxygen."

Are men more at risk? Don't let the name of the heart attack fool you. Women are just as much at risk for a "widowmaker" as men. But if heart attacks run in your family, you smoke cigarettes, are overweight, have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, have been diagnosed with diabetes, or have certain genetic conditions, your chance of having a heart attack could be increased. Talk to your doctor about your risk factors.

What symptoms should you look out for? Heart attack symptoms can vary from person to person. But the American Heart Association says the following are signs that you could be experiencing a heart attack:

  • Uncomfortable or intense pain and pressure in the center of your chest
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both of your arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Shortness of breath (with or without chest discomfort)
  • Breaking out into a cold sweat
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness


If you're experiencing any of the above symptoms, call 9-1-1 immediately.

How can you reduce your risk? Regular exercise, a heart-healthy diet, maintaining an optimal weight, not smoking or using tobacco products, and attending annual check-ups with your doctor can lower your chances of a heart attack.

This article is for informational purposes only. Talk to your physician about how you can implement heart-healthy habits into your daily life. And if you think you're experiencing a heart attack, call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room.

Sinclair Broadcast Group is committed to the health and well-being of our viewers, which is why we initiated Sinclair Cares. Every month we'll bring you information about the "Cause of the Month," including topical information, education, awareness, and prevention. June is Men's Health Education and Awareness Month.

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