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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.
Many people also think they can eat anything 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 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
- Women may also experience nausea, jaw pain or other symptoms
Signs of a Stroke: Think 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.
If you or a loved one is experiencing any of the heart attack or stroke symptoms, don’t wait – call 911 right away.
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: Pursuing a healthier lifestyle, including:
- 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
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.