Heart Disease and Stroke: What's the Connection?

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Close up of stroke checked on a medical test

Heart disease and stroke may seem like different diseases, but they’re actually closely related and caused by the same disease process in your arteries. As a result, there are simple things you can do to take care of your arteries and lower your chances of both heart disease and stroke.

How Are Heart Disease and Stroke Linked?

The most common types of heart disease and stroke begin with atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a slow buildup of fatty plaque inside your arteries. Plaque can build up at the same time in the arteries that supply blood to your heart and your brain.

Atherosclerosis narrows your arteries and reduces blood supply to your heart and brain. This makes it more likely that a blood clot will form and completely block blood flow. When a clot forms in the arteries of your heart, it causes a heart attack. When a clot forms in your brain, it causes a stroke.

Who Gets Heart Disease and Stroke?

You have a higher chance of both diseases if you develop a specific group of problems called metabolic syndrome. Your risk of heart attack or stroke doubles if you have three or more of the following metabolic risk factors:

  • Large waistline: 35 inches or more for women and 40 inches or more for men

  • High triglycerides: 150 mg/dL or higher

  • Low HDL or “good” cholesterol: Less than 50 mg/dL in women and 40 mg/dL in men

  • High blood pressure: 130 mm Hg or higher (top number) and/or 85 mm Hg or higher (bottom number)  

  • High blood sugar level: 100 mg/dL or higher when you have not eaten recently (fasting blood sugar)

Other risk factors for heart disease and stroke include smoking, having a sedentary lifestyle, and eating foods high in saturated fats and sugar.

If you have an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation, you also have an increased chance of a stroke. Atrial fibrillation can cause pooling of blood in your heart, which allows blood clots to form. These clots can travel through your bloodstream to your brain and cause a stroke.

What Can I Do to Lower My Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke?

By arming yourself with the facts, you can take charge of your health to lower your risk of both heart disease and stroke. The sooner you get started, the better. Here is what you can do:

  • Know your numbers. See your doctor regularly because you will probably be unaware of a rise in your blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol unless they are tested regularly. Regular checkups are the best way to catch and treat problems before they damage your arteries.

  • Get moving! This means getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week. Exercise could include walking, swimming, aerobics, yoga, running, or riding a bike.

  • Eat fresh. Eat more fresh foods and whole grains and less processed foods and snacks.

  • Cut the fat. Choose lean meats, such as chicken breast and lean cuts of other meats. Avoid high-fat meats, such as sausages. Also, choose low-fat dairy products over the higher fat versions. This will help keep your daily cholesterol intake to less than the recommended 300 mg a day.

  • Loose the extra weight. Ask your doctor what a healthy weight is for you and advice for getting there.

  • Mind your meds. Follow your doctor’s instructions, including taking medicines as prescribed. Find out if taking aspirin every day to lower the risk of blood clots that can cause a heart attack or stroke is right for you.

  • Kick the habit. Ask your doctor for advice about smoking cessation programs and medications.

  • Ease up on alcohol. Limit alcohol to one drink per day for women or two per day for men. 

When you take good care of your arteries, you get a two-for-one health benefit by lowering your risk of both heart disease and stroke.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 21
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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