Cardiovascular disease kills more people in the United States each year than any other cause. While this refers to a wide range of conditions that affect your heart or blood vessels (arteries and veins), two of the most common conditions are heart attack and stroke.
Unfortunately, there are several misconceptions surrounding these conditions. Here, two Henry Ford experts share key facts about heart attack and stroke, and discuss some of the common myths.
Q: What are the most common myths about heart attack and stroke?
A: “The most common myth is that people think they are too young to have a heart attack or stroke. The reality is that these life-threatening conditions can occur in adults of all ages,” says Henry Ford cardiologist Shalini Modi, M.D.
Additionally, many people think they can eat anything they want or avoid exercise because they take medications for high blood pressure or high cholesterol. “These medications are best supported by a healthy lifestyle, including eating a plant-based diet and getting regular exercise,” Dr. Modi says.
Q: What’s the difference between a heart attack and a stroke?
A: “Both conditions affect blood flow through your vessels, typically arteries,” says Henry Ford stroke and interventional neurologist Alex Chebl, M.D., director of the Henry Ford Comprehensive Stroke Center. “The main difference lies in where this happens.”
- A heart attack occurs when the heart is deprived of oxygen, which can cause damage to the heart muscle. This happens when one of the arteries that supply blood to the heart becomes narrowed or blocked.
- The blockage is often caused by a related condition known as coronary artery disease, where a fatty substance known as plaque builds up on heart artery walls over time.
- A stroke occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen, which can cause damage to brain tissue.
- The most common type is known as an ischemic stroke. This happens when a clot blocks one of the blood vessels supplying oxygen to the brain.
- A less common type is known as a hemorrhagic stroke. This occurs when one of the brain’s blood vessels leaks or ruptures.
- Some people also may experience a temporary blockage, known as a transient ischemic attack, or “mini-stroke.” These are often a warning sign that a full stroke is coming.
Q: How do I know if I’m having a heart attack or stroke?
A: While they both affect blood flow, the symptoms are very different. The most common signs of a heart attack for both men and women include:
- Chest pain or discomfort, such as a “squeezing” sensation
- Pain or discomfort in other areas of the body, such as the arms or stomach
- Shortness of breath
“It’s important to note that women may experience additional symptoms they may not recognize as a heart attack, such as nausea or jaw pain,” Dr. Modi says.
Signs of a Stroke: Think F.A.S.T.
“In stroke care, time is critical and can mean the difference between life and death or long-term disability,” Dr. Chebl says. “Recognize the signs of stroke and react quickly by remembering the simple acronym, F.A.S.T.”
- Face – uneven smile or drooping on one side of the face
- Arm – weakness in one arm
- Speech – slurred or garbled speech
- Time to call 911
Additionally, during a stroke some people experience confusion, a sudden severe headache, trouble seeing or trouble walking.
Q: How will having a heart attack or stroke affect me?
A: Heart attack is often associated with death, and stroke is often associated with disability. But the fact is, both can lead to death, disability or other changes in your quality of life. Your specific prognosis will depend on:
- The severity of the heart attack or stroke
- How quickly you were diagnosed and received initial treatment
- The effectiveness of your treatment
- Additional factors, such as diabetes, obesity, cancer or other pre-existing medical issues
Q: How I can I reduce my risk for having a heart attack or stroke?
A: “Given that heart attack and stroke occur due to changes in your blood flow, you can reduce your risk for both by pursuing a healthier lifestyle,” Dr. Modi says.
- Eating a well-balanced diet, mostly based on plants
- Getting daily, regular exercise
- Minimizing your stress
- Quitting smoking, vaping and other tobacco products
- Limiting your alcohol intake
The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
Some of the best foods we can eat are plants. Whole food plant-based diets provide several benefits that can help to improve your cardiovascular health, including improving cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, decreasing inflammation, eliminating added sugars and boosting fiber intake.
These meals can require more time to prepare than convenience foods, but you can streamline by prepping in bulk and freezing meals for later.
Check out our healthy recipes.
How to Work Regular Exercise Into Your Schedule
In the past it was recommended that you get 60 to 75 minutes of moderate daily exercise (an unattainable goal for many busy people).
While research still indicates that more exercise is better for your health, you can start small. For example, one recent study has shown that you can help improve your overall health in as little as 11 minutes a day. You can even get more activity into your schedule with “snack-size” workouts that are as short as 5 minutes.
Consider meeting with an athletic trainer if you need support, and get the approval of your doctor before starting any new exercise program.
Follow these 5 tips to get moving.
Other Risk Factors
In addition to lifestyle considerations, other factors may increase your risk for having a heart attack or stroke. These include family history, race and age.
“It’s important to know all of your risk factors, and that there are no absolutes,” Dr. Chebl says. “For example, while older adults are more likely to experience a heart attack or stroke, in some cases younger people are at higher risk.”
Talk to your doctor about your risk factors. In addition, you should get a physical once a year to ensure that high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, and other potential heart attack and stroke risk factors aren’t missed.
Dr. Shalini Modi is a cardiologist who sees patients at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.
Dr. Alex Chebl is a stroke and interventional neurologist and director of the Henry Ford Comprehensive Stroke Center. He sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.