Differences Between Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest

Recognizing Their Differences Can Affect Treatment

After somebody famous has died suddenly, it is common to hear in news reports that the death was caused by a "heart attack" or a "cardiac arrest." These terms often are used interchangeably by reporters; some will use one term while others use the other as if they indicate the same thing. It’s not just reporters, either. Doctors, too, can be pretty sloppy about their usage of “heart attack” and “cardiac arrest” when somebody has suffered sudden death.

Elderly man speaking to a nurse
Jacob Wackerhausen / Getty Images

Such imprecision on the part of the doctor can lead to confusion among the family members of the victim. Worse, creating confusion about the cause of death may cause relatives of the victim to miss potentially important clues about their own cardiac risk. 

A heart attack and a cardiac arrest are two different things that often have two entirely different kinds of implications for those they affect (if they survive the event), as well as for family members. 

What Is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack is common terminology for myocardial infarction (MI). An MI occurs when a coronary artery, one of the arteries that supplies blood to the heart muscle, becomes suddenly blocked. The sudden blockage robs a portion of the heart muscle of its vital blood supply, and the muscle dies. So, a heart attack is the death of a part of the heart muscle.

The sudden blockage of a coronary artery is usually caused by the rupture of a plaque in the artery. Plaque rupture can produce a variety of clinical conditions, including heart attacks and unstable angina, that are lumped together under the name acute coronary syndrome (ACS).

All forms of ACS are medical emergencies, and they generally need to be treated with medications, angioplasty, and stenting, or surgery to restore normal blood flow through the blocked artery. If blood flow can be restored within a few hours, permanent damage to the heart muscle can usually be minimized. Knowing how to survive a heart attack is critical for this reason.

One of the important risk factors for a heart attack is your family history. If a close relative has had a heart attack, especially at an early age, your own risk for premature coronary artery disease (CAD) may also be substantially elevated. In this case, it is especially important to take every opportunity to reduce your own risk for CAD. 

What Is a Cardiac Arrest?

A cardiac arrest, in contrast, is usually caused by a sudden heart arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation. In ventricular fibrillation, the electrical signals within the heart suddenly become completely chaotic. Because these electrical signals control the timing and the organization of the heartbeat, when those signals degenerate to total chaos, the heart suddenly stops beating. That is, it goes into "cardiac arrest." The most common outcome of a cardiac arrest is sudden death.

The treatment for a cardiac arrest is to begin immediate cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to support the victim's circulation, and, as soon as possible, to deliver a large electrical shock to the heart with a device called a defibrillator. The large shock allows the heart's electrical signal to reorganize itself, and the heart to begin beating again.

Unfortunately, because death occurs within a few minutes of cardiac arrest unless help is available, the large majority of people who suffer cardiac arrest are not successfully resuscitated.

Cardiac arrest tends to be much more common in people who have various types of underlying heart disease—most commonly, a prior heart attack or any condition that produces heart failure. As a matter of fact, the risk for sudden death can be substantially elevated in people with underlying heart disease to the extent that many of them should be considered for insertion of an implantable defibrillator, a device that automatically resuscitates people who suffer cardiac arrests.

Other causes of cardiac arrest include certain inherited heart abnormalities that tend to increase the risk of ventricular fibrillation (the most common of these being hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) and the use of various illicit drugs (especially cocaine).

Warning Signs of Cardiac Arrest vs Heart Attack

Symptoms of a coming heart attack usually start slowly and develop over the hours, days, or even weeks leading up to the heart attack event.

Warning signs of a heart attack include:

  • Chest discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes. The discomfort can be described as pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain. It may begin mild and go away then return.
  • Pain or discomfort in the upper body, particularly in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach. Women are more likely than men to experience back or jaw pain.
  • Shortness of breath, which may occur with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs include breaking out in cold sweats, nausea, or lightheadedness. Women are more likely than men to experience shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting.

Cardiac arrest, on the other hand, happens suddenly and often strikes without warning. The first sign of cardiac arrest may be loss of consciousness (fainting), and/or loss of pulse.

Some people do experience warning signs shortly before cardiac arrest occurs, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitations (fast or pounding heart beat)

An Important Distinction

If a close relative has died suddenly, it is important that you and your family members try to learn the precise cause of death. That cause of death may affect your own cardiovascular risk profile and those of your loved ones.

Be aware that even doctors may use the terms “heart attack” and “cardiac arrest” loosely after somebody has died suddenly. If such an event has affected your family, you should get as much information as you can about the cause and insist that the doctor speak precisely to you about what actually happened.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does stress cause cardiac arrest?

    Stress can cause an increase in blood pressure, inflammation, and cholesterol levels. Over time, these risk factors increase your chances of having a heart attack, and subsequently, cardiac arrest. Anxiety or severe stress can also cause abnormal heart rhythms and the release of stress hormones (like adrenaline), that increase the risk of cardiac arrest.

  • How can cardiac arrest be prevented?

    Unfortunately, you may not be able to prevent cardiac arrest. You can reduce your risk by quitting smoking (if you smoke), and getting screened regularly for heart conditions, especially if you have a family history of them. If you have experienced heart failure before, talk to your doctor about whether an implantable cardioverter defibrillator is right for you.

  • Can cardiac arrest happen while sleeping?

    Yes, cardiac arrest can occur at any time. Cardiac arrest may be more likely during nighttime hours, as the heart rate slows down into its resting state. One study found that women may be more likely than men to experience sudden cardiac death during sleep.

  • At what age do most heart attacks occur?

    In the United States, the average age of a first heart attack in men is 65, while the average age in women is 72. As many as 4% to 10% of all heart attacks occur before age 45, most of which occur in men.

Was this page helpful?
9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kolber MR, Scrimshaw C. Family history of cardiovascular disease. Can Fam Physician. 2014;60(11):1016. 

  2. Adabag AS, Luepker RV, Roger VL, Gersh BJ. Sudden cardiac death: epidemiology and risk factors. Nat Rev Cardiol. 2010;7(4):216-25. doi:10.1038/nrcardio.2010.3

  3. American Heart Association. Warning signs of a heart attack.

  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Cardiac Arrest.

  5. Batelaan N, Seldenrijk A, van den Heuvel, et al. Anxiety, mental stress, and sudden cardiac arrest: Epidemiology, possible mechanisms and future research. Front Psychiatry. 2022 Feb;12(1):813518. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2021.813518

  6. American Heart Association. Report: 10 measures could prevent sudden cardiac death.

  7. Cedars Sinai. Women at higher-risk of fatal, nighttime cardiac arrest. Published January 2021.

  8. Harvard Health Publishing. The heart attack gender age gap. Published April 2016.

  9. Harvard Health Publishing. Premature heart disease.