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Widow Maker Heart Attack: What Is It and How Does It Happen?

Table of Contents

Older man holding chest thinking he is having a heart attack

Table of Contents

What Happens During a Widowmaker Heart Attack?

Symptoms

Cause & Risk Factors

Treatment

Survival Rate

How Do You Prevent a Widowmaker Heart Attack?

Frequently Asked Questions

The Bottom Line

The “widowmaker” is a form of heart attack caused by complete blockage (aka chronic total obstruction or CTO) of the left anterior descending (LAD) artery. Clinically, it’s called ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI). 

Widowmaker heart attack got its grim name because it occurs commonly among men. However, evidence suggests that it is equally life-threatening for women. Additionally, circumstances involving healthy married men getting fatally hit by the LAD artery blockage strengthened the use of its monicker. 

With the absence of early warning signs and its deadly nature, understanding widowmaker artery blockage and taking steps to prevent it becomes even more essential with age. Learn more about this serious heart attack as you read on.

What Happens During a Widowmaker Heart Attack?

When experiencing a widowmaker heart attack, the LAD artery, a branch of the main left main artery, gets blocked typically by a blood clot. This cuts blood flow and oxygen supply to the left side of the heart, causing abnormal heartbeat, which could escalate to complete loss of heart function.

The widowmaker is a massive heart attack as it ties with 100% obstruction in the artery, making it the most dangerous and deadliest cardiac event. However, although it is life-threatening, you can still evade its fatal consequence. 

Did you know? Cholesterol buildup influences clogged arteries leading to a heart attack. Take the comprehensive lipid screening blood test to know your cholesterol levels and check out other heart health blood tests which assess your risk for cardiovascular disease. 

Symptoms

Like other types of heart attack, you’ll only experience symptoms of the widowmaker when it’s actually taking place already. There are typically no warning signs days or even hours before the attack. Hence, it often catches healthy people off guard. 

If you have the following widowmaker heart attack symptoms or observe other people experiencing them, seek immediate medical attention. 

  • Chest pain
  • Cold sweat
  • Disorientation 
  • Lightheadedness 
  • Irregular heartbeats 
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pain and discomfort spreading to the upper body (stomach, legs, arms, back, jaw, and neck)

Chest pain (angina) is often the first symptom of heart attack common to men and women. It is described as if a sudden pressure has been applied in the chestal area or a sensation of being squeezed. This could last for minutes and may recur within hours. 

Cause & Risk Factors

The primary cause of a widowmaker heart attack is LAD artery blockage. While it is generally unpredictable to detect when an attack could happen, you can identify factors that could increase your risk. These include pre-existing medical conditions and unhealthy lifestyle choices such as the following.

High cholesterol levels

It’s common knowledge that the main danger posed by having too much cholesterol is heart disease. Hence, it comes as no surprise that there’s a clear link between heart attack and high levels of lipids. When cholesterol is too high, it accumulates on the arterial walls and begins to harden (a.k.a. plaques), narrowing the passage for blood flow – a condition known as atherosclerosis. 

Pre-diabetes or diabetes

People with high sugar levels have a higher risk for myocardial infarction, which accounts for the leading cause of morbidity among patients with diabetes. Insulin resistance, which typically drives the metabolic condition, leads to compounding risk factors for heart disease, which include thrombosis (blood clot formation in the blood vessels). This is why those predisposed to diabetes should secure a diabetes profile blood test to monitor the disorder. 

High blood pressure

Hypertension or increased blood pressure damages the coronary artery and promotes plaque buildup. If you’re diagnosed with hypertension, it’s best to follow through with the prescribed medication for lowering blood pressure and enforcing lifestyle changes that help manage the condition. 

Obesity

Obesity and overweightness directly associate with high cholesterol levels – which as established earlier, drastically increases your risk for a widowmaker heart attack. Patients who are obese or overweight have increased low-density lipids (bad cholesterols) and low high-density lipids (good cholesterol). 

Sedentary lifestyle

Physical inactivity contributes to the likelihood of coronary artery disease and widowmaker heart attack. This includes sitting for the most part of the day and a lack of regular exercise. On the other hand, clinical evidence shows that consistent physical activity decreases the risk for heart disease by 21% among men and 29% in women. 

Poor diet

Meals high in saturated and trans fats, as well as sugary and salty foods, contribute to cholesterol buildup. Frequent consumption of these foods also elevates your blood pressure and sugar level compounding your risk for STEMI.

Smoking

Smokers don’t only have a higher affinity to experiencing the widowmaker heart attack. But they also have a higher risk for related death and recurring infarction after undergoing treatment for heart attack. 

Treatment

Once you’re in the emergency room, nurses and the doctor in charge will proceed to unblock your LAD artery and restore blood flow to your heart. This can be done by stenting, a minor invasive angioplasty procedure that uses a metal mesh to remove the blood clot or blockage. But if there are other blockages, your doctor may opt for heart surgery. 

Survival Rate

The widowmaker heart attack survival rate may vary depending on where you are during the event. Reports from the American Heart Association show that only 12% of people suffering from the widowmaker heart attack outside the hospital get to survive. However, those already admitted to the medical facility during this heart attack have a 25% survival rate. 

Naturally, factors such as how fast the medical response was after the attack, the type of treatment applied, and the length of recovery dictate your survival from the widowmaker artery blockage. 

Additionally, physicians evaluate if your body went into shock during a heart attack. A “shock” is a general term referring to a strong physiological and psychological response from your body. It is life-threatening in itself. Hence, your chances of survival decrease by 20% if you experience this complication.

How Do You Prevent a Widowmaker Heart Attack?

young lady complaining of chest pain

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 805,000 Americans experience a heart attack yearly. With this number and the fact that heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the country, prevention and early intervention have become more imperative.  

In the case of the widowmaker heart attack, here are actions you can take to prevent and survive it.

  • Undergo a wellness checkup annually to know your risks for a heart attack
  • Take a lipid panel blood test to assess your cholesterol levels
  • Replace unhealthy foods with heart-friendly alternatives
  • Quit smoking and cut back on your alcohol intake
  • Exercise five times a day for at least 30 minutes
  • Maintain a healthy weight according to your ideal BMI (body mass index) calculation

Did You Know? A heart attack is not exclusive to men and people of old age. Women are also at risk, even those still in their 20s. Read more about why assessing your risk for heart disease is important, even as a young adult. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How Serious Is a Widowmaker Heart Attack?

The widowmaker heart attack is a severe massive heart attack requiring a speedy medical response. If you or anyone you know has been experiencing symptoms of this condition, call 911 or seek medical assistance from the nearest hospital. The faster treatment is performed, the higher the chances of surviving the heart attack.

Is the Widowmaker Hereditary?

Your risk of experiencing the widowmaker heart attack can be genetic. If anyone in your family has gone through a heart attack, there’s a chance that you might have one yourself. Still, you can prevent it through lifestyle changes and cholesterol checkups. 

Can the Widowmaker Artery Be Bypassed?

Your doctor may perform a coronary artery bypass grafting to unclog the LAD or widowmaker artery. In this surgical procedure, an artery graft can be taken from other body parts (e.g., leg or arm), which is used to divert the blood flow, bypassing the blockage and providing another path for the blood to reach the heart. 

The Bottom Line

The widowmaker heart attack should be taken seriously primarily because the name speaks for itself on multiple occasions. Knowing its impact and the actionable steps to prevent the condition can have a good payoff in the future. If you’re genetically predisposed to a heart attack or other related cardiovascular disorders, checking your cholesterol levels is an important first step to lowering your risk. Periodic testing could go a long way for your heart health. 

Medically Approved By Dr. Edward Salko, MD

Dr. Edward Salko is the board-certified physician who reviews lab tests provided by PERSONALABS™. He earned his Bachelor of Science in chemistry and pre-med from the University of Florida in Gainesville and his Doctor of Osteopathy Medicine in 1980 from Kansas City University School of Medicine.

Dr. Salko’s career has specialized in family and emergency medicine. His passion is to provide clients with the tools they need in the most convenient way possible to allow them to take charge of their own healthcare. He has held a variety of positions in Kansas, Florida and Washington. Currently, in addition to his duties as Medical Director for Personalabs, he is a practicing emergency physician in Kennewick, Washington.

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