The Link Between Heart Attack and Stroke

Heart attack and stroke are both traumatic physical events. They often lead to long-term disability or even death. One directly affects the heart, while the other significantly impacts the brain. Despite this difference, they’re greatly influenced by similar behaviors.

Cause of Heart Attack
A myocardial infarction, or heart attack, occurs when the heart muscle doesn’t receive enough blood or oxygen. The primary cause is coronary artery disease (CAD), which happens when plaque (i.e. cholesterol and fat) builds up on the artery walls. Over time, this causes them to narrow, which limits blood flow and induces an attack.

Cause of Stroke
Stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S. It’s a medical emergency that occurs when oxygen/nutrients are blocked from the brain, causing cells to die. Strokes can stem from clots (ischemic stroke) or a ruptured blood vessel (hemorrhage). Approximately 87% of strokes are ischemic and are the result of obstructions caused by fatty deposits on vessel walls.

Largest Risk Factors
Every 40 seconds an American will have a heart attack or stroke. Here are the most common risk factors associated with both:

  • Diabetes
  • Diet and nutrition
  • Family history
  • Gender
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Obesity
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Smoking

Heart attack itself is a notable risk factor for stroke as both are linked to coronary artery disease. Men are more likely to experience a heart attack, while women are more prone to strokes. In fact, one in five women will have a stroke in their lifetime. Race also plays a role as some minorities, including African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Native Americans, are more likely to develop heart disease due to a combined risk of high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

Modifiable Behaviors
Heart attack and stroke are preventable. Reducing the risk of one can significantly reduce the risk of the other. Start by eating balanced meals with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Avoid foods that are high in sodium, saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol.

It’s important to increase physical activity by engaging in moderate to vigorous exercise at least three times a week. This will help to maintain a healthy weight and strengthen the heart. It’s also crucial to avoid tobacco smoke. It’s one of the most dangerous independent risk factors that can lead to additional chronic conditions.

Preventive Health Care
A primary care physician is an integral part of any health care regimen. Talk to them about monitoring blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol as well as managing a healthy diet. A doctor can provide professional guidance and preventive care in the form of screenings and in some cases, medication. Check your insurance coverage to determine what type of wellness exams are readily available.

About the Author: Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker is an associate medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan 

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  1. The goal is to reduce the risk of blood clots that can form when patients have an irregular heartbeat and make their way to other parts of the body. These clots can potentially lodge in small blood vessels within the brain, lungs and other structures. Initiation of this therapy will also include a risk assessment of overall bleeding potential,

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