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Heart attack vs. stroke

Heart attack vs. stroke

Posted: Thursday, February 2, 2012 11:27 am
By: Jack Baltz, Nurse practitioner

Heart disease and stroke are the among the nation’s top causes of death and disability. Although, one disease affects the heart, and one affects the brain, these conditions actually have a lot in common.
Cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease and stroke, account for more than one-third of all deaths in the United States, and disability in nearly three million people annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And aren’t health concerns to begin to worry about later in life: in 2006, of the approximately 800,000 Americans who died of cardiovascular diseases, 151,000 were younger than age 65.
A heart attack and a stroke are both results of vascular disease: conditions caused by a disorder or defect in the way blood is carried throughout the body. When either organ is deprived of blood – even temporarily – the lack of oxygen and nutrients causes tissue to begin to die.
The primary cause of either a heart attack or a stroke is a blocked blood vessel or artery. This happens when plaque – deposits of fat, cholesterol and other substances – builds up on the walls of arteries, narrowing the passageway for blood; or when a blood clot occurs. A blood clot happens when plaque breaks off and ruptures the wall of the artery. These clots can block the artery and prevent blood from reaching parts of the heart muscle or brain. The resulting damage depends in part on the area affected and amount of heart or brain tissue deprived of blood and oxygen.
Heart attack
Heart attack is the number-one cause of death in American adults, affecting more than 1.2 million individuals each year. When blood flow to the heart is limited and the heart is starved of oxygen, this condition is called ischemia. Complete interruption of blood flow causes cell death in heart tissue. This condition is known as myocardial infarction, or heart attack.
A heart attack can also occur when a coronary artery temporarily contracts or spasms, interrupting the flow of blood to the heart. The cause of these spasms is unknown, and they can affect both healthy blood vessels and those already narrowed by plaque deposits.
Stroke is the third-leading cause of death in the United States and a leading cause of serious, long-term disability, affecting around 45 million people. Someone suffers a stroke every 40 seconds, on the average, and dies every four minutes.
There are three types of stroke: ischemic (involving a blocked artery), hemorrhagic (caused by bleeding into the brain), and a transient ischemic attack (TIA), also known as a “mini stroke,” caused by a temporary interruption of blood flow. A TIA is a stroke-like attack that can happen when a blood clot clogs an artery, then dissolves or moves away. Although a TIA does not cause lasting damage, it indicates a higher risk of a future stroke and should be regarded as a warning sign.
Depending on the area of the brain affected by the stroke, the body part or function controlled by that portion of the brain will be affected, too: speech, memory, vision, motor movements, and even behavior or personality.
Risk factors and
Heart attacks and strokes share many common risk factors: smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, overweight/obesity, poor diet, inactivity, diabetes, and a family history of the disease. Men also have a higher incidence of heart attacks and strokes than women do.  
The best prevention plan to combat heart attack and stroke risk is a healthy lifestyle: avoid smoking, be physically active, maintain a healthy weight, and make nutritious food choices. Preventing and controlling high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol also play a significant role in cardiovascular health.
Timing is critical with a heart attack or stroke: The amount of time that elapses between the onset of a heart attack or stroke, and medical assistance, determines the extent of damage to the heart or brain – and the loss of heart or brain function. If a heart attack or stroke is suspected, don’t wait. Proceed to the nearest ER for help.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of a heart attack and stroke, calling 911 immediately, and getting to a hospital right away greatly increase the chances of surviving and limiting any permanent damage.
To learn more, visit, click on “Health Resources” and “Interactive Tools,” and take the Heart Health or Stroke Quiz, or one of more than 70 heart- and stroke health-related quizzes.
About the author
Jack Baltz is a certified nurse practitioner. He has a master’s degree in nursing from Vanderbilt University and his nurse practitioner from the University of Tennessee in Memphis. Baltz specializes in acute care of illnesses and injuries. He also manages the care of patients with chronic illnesses.
Remember that this information is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor, but rather to increase awareness and help equip patients with information and facilitate conversations with your physician that will benefit your health.
Sources: American Heart Association,; National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute,; WebMD,; Centers for Disease Control & Prevention,

WCP 1.31.12

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