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What to know about stroke and heart disease

What to know about stroke and heart disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States. Together, heart disease and stroke, along with other cardiovascular diseases, are among the most widespread and costly health problems facing millions. Touro Family Medicine Physician Dr. Meredith Maxwell is here to explain what we can do to prevent heart diseases.

What causes a heart attack and a stroke to happen?

Every part of your body, including your heart and brain, needs oxygen to work. Oxygen is carried in the blood. Blood vessels called arteries carry oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. Both heart attack and stroke are due to problems in the arteries. The same factors that cause heart disease can make you more likely to have a stroke.

  • Heart attack. A heart attack is caused by a blockage in an artery that carries blood to the heart muscle. If blood is blocked, that part of the heart muscle is damaged or dies.
  • Stroke. If an artery that supplies blood to the brain is blocked, a stroke may happen. This is called an ischemic stroke. It is caused by a piece of plaque breaking loose from an artery, such as a carotid artery in the neck. Or it may be caused by a blood clot from the heart traveling up into the brain. Another kind of stroke is a hemorrhagic stroke. This is caused by the rupture of a weakened blood vessel.

Both heart attack and stroke are medical emergencies. They can lead to serious health problems and can even cause death.

What are the risk factors?

Many of the risk factors for stroke and heart attack are the same. These include:

  • smoking
  • high cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • age
  • family history

High blood pressure strains the walls of your blood vessels. That makes them more rigid and less likely to expand as needed to maintain healthy circulation. Poor circulation can increase your risk of stroke and heart attack.

If you have a heart rhythm abnormality known as atrial fibrillation (AK), you also have an increased stroke risk. Because your heart doesn’t beat in a regular rhythm during AF, blood can pool in your heart and form a clot. If that clot breaks free of your heart, it can travel as an embolus toward your brain and cause an ischemic stroke.

Are there ways to reduce your risk of a heart attack and a stroke?

Making changes that make your arteries healthier will help lower your risk for both heart attack and stroke. If you have heart disease, you may need to work on a few aspects of your lifestyle. But remember that the things that are good for your arteries, heart, and brain are also good for the rest of your body.

Your healthcare provider will work with you to make lifestyle changes as needed to help prevent your heart disease from getting worse. If it gets worse, that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Factors you may need to work on include:

  • Diet. Your healthcare provider will give you information on dietary changes that you may need to make. Your provider may advise that you see a registered dietitian for help. Changes may include:
    • Reducing fat and cholesterol intake
    • Reducing sodium (salt) intake, especially if you have high blood pressure
    • Eating more fresh vegetables and fruits
    • Eating lean proteins, such as fish, poultry, and legumes (beans and peas) and eating less red meat and processed meats
    • Eating low- or no-fat dairy products
    • Using vegetable and nut oils in limited amounts
    • Limiting sweets and processed foods such as chips, cookies, and baked goods
  • Physical activity. Your healthcare provider may advise that you increase your physical activity if you have not been as active as possible. Your provider may advise you to include moderate to vigorous-intensity activity for at least 40 minutes each day for at least 3 to 4 days per week. The amount will depend on your health. Examples of moderate to vigorous activity include:
    • Walking at a brisk pace, about 3 to 4 miles per hour
    • Jogging or running
    • Swimming or water aerobics
    • Hiking
    • Dancing
    • Martial arts
    • Tennis
    • Riding a bike or a stationary bike
  • Weight management. If you are overweight or obese, your healthcare provider will work with you to lose weight and lower your BMI (body mass index) to a normal or near-normal level. Making dietary changes and increasing physical activity can help.
  • Smoking. If you smoke, break the smoking habit. Enroll in a stop-smoking program to improve your chances of success.
  • Stress. Learn stress management methods to help you deal with stress in your home and work life.

About Dr. Maxwell

Dr. Meredith MaxwellDr. Meredith Maxwell specializes in Family Medicine at Crescent City Physicians, Inc., a subsidiary of Touro Infirmary. After earning her degree from St. Matthews University Medical School, she completed her residency in Family Medicine at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine. Dr. Maxwell said she chose Family Medicine because it never gets boring and allows her to treat patients of all ages and treat the whole family.

If you or someone you know needs a primary care provider, you can visit or call 504-897-7777