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In-depth: The Stroke/Heart Disease Connection

separator Take a look at the following list and see whether you think it contains risk factors for heart disease or risk factors for stroke:

  • Increasing age
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Family history
  • Heavy consumption of alcohol
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Being physically inactive
  • Being obese or overweight

If you said heart disease, you’re correct. If you said stroke, you’re also correct. 
But chances are, heart disease may have been the first thing you thought of. For some reason, knowledge about stroke risk isn’t always on our radar screens.

There are other risk factors for stroke as well:

  • Having had a prior stroke
  • Carotid artery disease (these are arteries in your neck)
  • Heart disease (people with heart disease have three times the risk of stroke as people who don’t have heart disease)
  • High red blood cell count

During a heart attack, the flow of blood to the heart is blocked. During most strokes, the flow of blood to the brain is blocked. These blockages are typically caused by fatty deposits in the arteries, a condition called atherosclerosis. You may hear some people refer to stroke as a “brain attack.” In a way, that gives you a better description of what a stroke is. It also emphasizes the serious nature of strokes.

What a stroke feels like
Strokes can happen even to people who seem completely healthy and active, and they can happen to people who are not elderly. Here’s how a 31-year-old man, Andrew “Drew” Walker, describes his experience with stroke:

“The experience of having a stroke was weird. I lost the ability to move on the left side of my body. I couldn’t speak well. Imagine speaking with a mouth full of food. …I recall being asked by my doctors to move my left hand. In my mind, I was moving my hand, but physically there was no movement.

“Prior to my stroke, I was the picture of perfect health. I played basketball religiously. I played football.”

Know the warning signs
These are the warning signs of a stroke:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden difficulty understanding or speaking
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden dizziness, loss of balance, trouble walking
  • Sudden, severe headache

Not all of the signs occur with every stroke. Sometimes you may notice one of the signs, and then it disappears, then returns.

The effects of a stroke can be life-changing. Common ones include

  • Being paralyzed on one side of your body
  • Having vision problems
  • Losing your memory
  • Difficulty speaking, and sometimes not being able to speak at all
  • A change in your personality

Sometimes, the effects are permanent. Sometimes they become less severe over time, but never go away completely. Your best chance for a complete recovery is to get emergency treatment without any delay.

If you notice any of the signs of a stroke, either in yourself or someone else, don’t wait. Call 9-1-1 right away. The sooner you get emergency treatment, the better your chances of recovering.

The American Stroke Association; The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; NHLBI Publication: Mobilizing African American Communities to Address Disparities in Cardiovascular Health.
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