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Blockages can occur when a build-up of fat, cholesterol and other substances forms a plaque in the arteries, in a process known as atherosclerosis. When the plaque breaks away, it can form a clot that interrupts the flow of blood carrying oxygen throughout the body. If this clot blocks blood flow to the heart, the heart muscle starts to die.

Heart attacks can be fatal. It is vital to get treatment as soon as possible to restore blood flow to the heart and prevent further damage to the heart.

The most common symptoms of a heart attack are:

  • Pain, pressure or an aching sensation in the chest or arms that can spread to the neck, jaw or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain
  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Cold sweat.

People may experience one or a combination of these symptoms. Symptoms can also differ between men and women. While women may experience the same symptoms, the chest pain most commonly felt by male heart attack victims may not be as severe or noticeable. Women are also more likely to experience the other symptoms of heart attack unrelated to chest pain.

While some heart attacks can be sudden, some people experience symptoms and warning signs hours or even days in advance, such as recurrent chest pain or pressure. It is important to see a doctor immediately if you suspect a heart attack.

The impact

Heart attack is a leading cause of hospitalisation and death in Australia, claiming on average 21 lives every day.1

An estimated 430,000 Australians have had a heart attack at some point in their lives, and every year, 57,000 Australians suffer a heart attack – that’s one heart attack every 10 minutes.2 3 Furthermore, one in three Australians personally knows someone who has had a heart attack.4

The risk

The underlying cause of a heart attack is atherosclerosis, which can display no symptoms, but there are risk factors that increase your chance of developing it.

Certain risk factors cannot be changed.

  • Age: Your risk of heart disease increases with age.
  • Gender: Men are at a higher risk of heart attack, but women are more likely to die from a repeat heart attack than men.
  • Ethnicity: Some ethnicities have a higher risk.
  • Family history: If a family member has had a heart attack, you may be at increased risk.

However, other risk factors can be changed or managed. These include:

Visit the risk factors page for more information.

What is HRI doing?

HRI is conducting innovative research to develop new therapies for detecting, preventing and treating heart attacks.

Our Arterial Inflammation and Redox Biology Group is investigating unstable atherosclerotic plaque, which can cause blockages leading to heart attack, and how to detect and prevent the formation of this high-risk plaque.

Our Coronary Diseases Group is investigating whether the anti-inflammatory drug colchicine, which has already proved safe and effective for treating conditions like arthritis and gout, can be repurposed to protect against repeat heart attacks. A collaboration between the Coronary Disease Group and our Clinical Research Group has also discovered that the heart releases certain substances during a heart attack that can be detected in the laboratory.

Our Thrombosis Group is undertaking research to understand how blood clot formation occurs in healthy individuals. This research is crucial for developing safer and more effective therapies for heart attacks, amongst other cardiovascular diseases.


  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2018, Causes of Death 2017, ABS cat. no. 3303.0, September.
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, National Hospital Morbidity Database.
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016, National Health Survey: First results, 2014-15, ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001, March.
  4. Heart Foundation; Heart attack fact sheet.

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