Heart attacks and strokes are closely related. Both are most often caused by the same health problems, such as cardiovascular disease. They also share many of the same risk factors, including lifestyle and family history. Even seemingly unrelated conditions, such as gum disease, are connected to an increased risk of both heart attack and stroke.

One of these connections is especially serious: A previous heart attack is a risk factor for a subsequent stroke. So if you've had a heart attack, you are in greater danger of also having a stroke.

Fortunately, the same heart-healthy lifestyle that decreases the chance of a heart attack can also lessen your risk of suffering a stroke.

Connected causes

Most strokes happen when a piece of plaque or a blood clot blocks the flow of blood to the brain. Similarly, heart attacks are caused by blockages in the flow of blood to the heart.

That's why atherosclerosis, or the build-up of fatty plaque in the arteries, is the leading cause of heart attacks and strokes. Atherosclerosis can prevent blood from reaching the heart. And it contributes to the development of blood clots that can travel to the heart or brain, just as dislodged pieces of plaque can, with devastating results.

Some risk factors for atherosclerosis can't be controlled. A family history of heart disease, for example, does not mean that you will develop atherosclerosis. Neither does your age. But your risk increases as you age, just as it does if heart disease "runs" in your family.

There is much you can do, however, to control many other risk factors. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends an ABC approach that tackles all modifiable risk factors in three simple steps:

  • Avoid tobacco. Smoking increases blood pressure, contributes to the formation of blood clots, decreases good cholesterol and is the most significant modifiable risk factor in the development of heart disease. In addition, smoking increases your risk of having a stroke.
  • Be physically active. You can lower your blood pressure, reduce your cholesterol levels and risk of developing many diseases through regular and appropriate exercise. Even 30 minutes of heart-strengthening exercise five days a week will significantly lower your chances of suffering a heart attack or a stroke.
  • Choose nutrition. A diet that includes nutrient-rich foods instead of empty calories is important to maintaining a healthy weight. This is vital because obesity and accompanying complications, such as diabetes, are major controllable risk factors for both heart attacks and strokes.

Take care of your heart and take care of your health!

If you need more information on controlling your risk factors and guarding against a heart attack or a stroke, talk to your doctor.

To find a doctor or speak to a nurse, call Consult-A-Nurse® at (951) 788-3463, 24 hours a day. Visit our heart care institute or Certified Primary Stroke Center page for information on our cardiovascular care.

Sources: Heart.org, NIH.gov, Perio.org