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Heart attack and stroke are the most common reasons for premature death or disability. These cardiovascular problems are often driven by a sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy eating, and some medical problems.
However, there are various simple ways by which you can lower the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Difference Between a Heart Attack and a Stroke
A heart attack is a sudden absence of blood flow to a part of the heart muscle, resulting in acute chest pain and/or shortness of breath, among other symptoms.
Stroke is a heart attack of the brain, a sudden absence of blood flow to a part of the brain resulting in neurological deficits depending on what area of the brain is affected.
Self-Care Tips to Preserve Your Cardiovascular Health
To lower the risk of a heart attack and/or stroke, you need to understand the drivers of risk, including:
- Diabetes (type 1 and 2)
- High blood pressure (HTN)
- High cholesterol level
- Family history of early heart disease
While you cannot choose your parents, changing your diet and lifestyle can highly influence the risk of a heart attack or stroke. These changes include:
- Smoking cessation
- Consuming a heart-healthy diet (eating a plant-based diet and reducing the consumption of simple carbohydrates)
- Healthy weight loss
- Stress management
- Regular exercise
- Optimal sleep
- Managing health problems
- Staying educated about cardiovascular problems and risks
People at Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke
People who smoke, are obese, or have a sedentary lifestyle are more likely to suffer from a heart attack or stroke. Also, people with certain medical conditions are at a higher risk of a heart attack or stroke. These conditions include:
- Untreated high cholesterol levels, particularly with elevated levels of inflammatory markers, triglycerides, and non-HDL cholesterol
First-Line Assistance for Heart Attack
The most important thing is to evaluate ABCs – airway, breathing, and circulation – basic life support principles. Make sure to call 911 quickly. Also, administer chewable aspirin if available, and make sure the patient is lying down and is comfortable.
Immediate Measures for a Stroke
Similar to a heart attack, it is vital to call 911 immediately. Time is brain.
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of stroke is critical. Use the mnemonic BE-FAST – balance, eyes, face drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty, time to call 911. (1)
If the patient is experiencing a stroke, he/she may be eligible to receive a clot-buster medication that can potentially reverse the stroke or the very least minimize brain injury, provided he/she gets to the ER within 3 hours of symptom onset.
The Harmful Effects of Smoking on Heart Health
Smoking is often associated with respiratory illnesses, but it is also a major driver of heart and vascular (blood vessel) disease and accounts for 20% of cardiovascular deaths in the United States. (2)
Smoking raises the heart rate, constricts blood vessels, and can accelerate blood vessel injury, leading to a heart attack and stroke.
Cardiovascular risk is enhanced further in smokers that have diabetes and/or take birth control pills. “Smokeless” devices or vaping confer the same cardiovascular risk as cigarettes.
The good news is smoking cessation is associated with a significant reduction in cardiovascular risk after 5 years. (3)
Dietary Changes to Reduce the Risk of Heart Attack or Stroke
An ounce of prevention is always better than a pound of cure. When it comes to diet, food is medicine. One cannot outrun a bad diet.
Michael Pollan’s simple advice in his book Omnivore’s Dilemma is this – eat food, not a lot, mostly plants. By food, he is referring to whole foods, not processed and packaged foods.
Avoid simple carbohydrates as well as refined and processed foods. If you eat meat, think of it as a condiment, and choose the highest-quality meat you can afford. Healthy animals make healthy humans. (4)
Importance of Exercising for Healthy Heart
The American Heart Association recommends performing half an hour of moderate exercise regularly to lower the risk of cardiovascular events. (5) However, a more recent study suggests that 5–10 minutes of daily running is sufficient to reduce cardiovascular mortality significantly. (6)
Exercise benefits the heart in multiple ways, including:
- Lowered blood pressure
- Weight control
- Stress management
- Reduced inflammation
So, just a little bit of exercise each day can go a long way to boost heart health.
How Is Weight Related to Heart Health?
Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, as defined by body mass index (BMI) greater than 30. (7)
Obesity is associated with a higher risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and sleep apnea, all known risk drivers for cardiovascular disease. The pattern of obesity is important.
Abdominal obesity, as defined by a waist circumference of greater than 40 inches in men and greater than 35 inches in women, is highly correlated with cardiovascular risk. (8)
The visceral or deep fat surrounding the digestive organs creates a state of inflammation, which is the driver of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, degenerative diseases, and cancer.
Can High Levels of Stress Lead to a Heart Attack?
Chronic stress leads to increased inflammation and, thus, elevated risk of heart attack and stroke. (9)
The “fight or flight” response was extremely useful when humans were hunter-gathers trying to escape from the saber-toothed tiger. Once safety was assured, stress chemicals rapidly returned down to normal levels.
However, the stress of modern-day living has created a chronic low-grade fight or flight response, whereby stress chemicals stay elevated. This leads to inflammation, weight gain, poor eating habits, and elevated blood pressure, all creating a milieu ripe for heart attacks.
Are the Symptoms of Heart Attack or Stroke Common in Every Patient?
Patients experiencing heart attacks do not always present with the typical symptoms of severe chest pain. Women often present with atypical symptoms, such as extreme fatigue, heartburn, dizziness.
Similarly, the presentation for strokes can also be on a spectrum from a change in speech pattern, sensory changes, and dizziness to full-blown paralysis.
It is important for patients, their family/friends/coworkers, and treating physicians to pay close attention to the acuity and severity of symptoms that might raise their suspicion of a heart attack or stroke situation.
Immediate Medical Treatment for a Heart Attack
Current treatment options for heart attack and stroke have dramatically reduced morbidity and mortality in patients.
For heart attacks, particularly those classified as “STEMI” (ST-elevation myocardial infarction), urgent restoration of heart artery blood flow with the use of balloon angioplasty/stent (percutaneous coronary intervention) is critical to relieving symptoms and reducing the extent of heart muscle injury.
Patients are also treated with a “cocktail” of medications, including:
- Aspirin and other blood thinners
- Cholesterol-lowering medications (statins)
- Blood pressure/heart rate-lowering medications
Echocardiograms are ultrasound examinations of the heart that cardiologists use to evaluate heart function and extent of heart damage.
Following discharge from the hospital, enrollment in outpatient cardiac rehabilitation programs accelerates recovery and has been shown to improve long-term survival.
What Immediate Medical Treatment Is Available for Stroke Patients?
Stroke care has also been transformed in recent decades with the advent of clot-busting medications and interventional neurovascular techniques to restore blood flow in the brain quickly.
“Code stroke” protocols have been put into place in most hospitals to urgently gather stroke specialists to come together physically and virtually at the patient’s bedside to evaluate potential stroke patients and deliver timely care as appropriate.
Key Points to Avoid Cardiovascular Complications
In summary, I would like to highlight three important points in your health journey:
1. Prevention is always the best approach
Know your numbers – BMI, waist circumference, blood pressure, LDL cholesterol and triglyceride (or non-HDL cholesterol) levels, and fasting blood sugar level. And then work hard, eat clean, exercise regularly, manage stress, and optimize sleep.
2. Early recognition
Know the warning symptoms of a heart attack and stroke, and seek urgent medical evaluation. Remember, time is muscle and brain.
Know the expertise of your local hospitals. Seek out stroke-certified hospitals and PCI centers (for heart attacks). These facilities are equipped to provide state-of-the-science care for these conditions.
Healthy living is the key to reducing the risk of various cardiovascular and brain diseases.
This includes making changes in your habits to achieve regular activity, healthy eating, avoiding smoking, and managing health conditions.