Heart Disease and Stroke: How to Lower Your Risk

Heart Disease and Stroke: How to Lower Your Risk

This article was originally featured in Brigham Health Hub.

By Aileen Sauris, ANP, and Ali Aziz-Sultan, MD

The following are two common misunderstandings many of us have about heart disease and stroke:

“Heart attacks and strokes only affect the elderly.”

“A heart attack can be ‘fixed’ with modern medical and surgical technology.”

While you can’t change certain cardiovascular risk factors, like age and family history, you can reduce your risk by controlling other contributing factors and developing healthy lifestyle habits.

The fact is that 37 percent of all American adults live with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, which puts them at risk for developing cardiovascular disease. In total, Americans suffer 1.5 million heart attacks and strokes each year. But cardiovascular disease is avoidable, even if it runs in your family. Small but gradual lifestyle changes can have a large impact in preventing cardiovascular disease, or in keeping it from worsening.

Both stroke and heart disease are equally serious cardiovascular diseases. In the US, heart disease remains the number one killer, and stroke is the number four killer. To avoid becoming a victim of cardiovascular disease, it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of heart attack or stroke and understand how to decrease your risk.

What is a heart attack?
A heart attack occurs when blood flow to heart muscle becomes blocked. Common symptoms of a heart attack may include:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, burning, or squeezing sensations in the chest;
  • Pain in the chest, neck, or back;
  • Unusual shortness of breath;
  • Nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sweating;
  • Unusual fatigue.
  • It’s important to note that heart attack symptoms vary from person to person and between men and women. If you’re unsure, don’t wait – call 911 for help.

What is a stroke?
A stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks the blood supply to a part of the brain, or when a blood vessel in or around the brain bursts. In either case, parts of the brain become damaged or die. Recovery from a stroke can take months or years; some patients never fully recover.

The acronym FAST (Face, Arms, Speech, Time), will help you recognize the warning signs of a stroke in yourself or a loved one:

  • Face: Drooping on one side of face, numbness, or sudden drooling.
  • Arms: Difficulty holding things, numbness, trouble walking, or one arm drifts down or can’t be raised.
  • Speech: Slurred speech that doesn’t make sense and difficulty reading, writing, and understanding what people are saying.
  • Time: If you suspect a stroke, act quickly. Time is critical in preserving brain function.

Three ways to reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke
Though you can’t change cardiovascular risk factors such as age, gender, race/ethnicity, and family history, you can reduce your risk.

1. Know Your Health Numbers

By paying attention to the following health measures, you and your physician can prevent cardiovascular disease:

  • Fasting glucose – This test measures the amount of sugar in your blood after you haven’t eaten for at least 8 hours. Your fasting glucose should be less than 100 mg/dl.
  • Blood pressure – There are two types of blood pressure measures: systolic measures the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats and diastolic measures pressure in your blood vessels when your heart rests. Your blood pressure should be about 120 (systolic) over 80 (diastolic) mm Hg.
  • Cholesterol – There are several measures of cholesterol, and all are important in determining cardiovascular risk. Your high density lipoprotein (good) cholesterol should be greater than 50 mg/dl; low density lipoprotein (bad) cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dl; and triglycerides should be less than 150 mg/dl.
  • Body Mass Index (BMI) – A measure of the relationship between your height and your weight. If your weight is too much for your height, you may have excess body fat, which can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Your BMI should be between 18.5 and 24.0.

2. Eat Healthy
Choose foods that are low in fat, added sugar, and salt and try to eat a variety of vegetables and fruits and whole-grain or high fiber foods. Limiting red meat consumption and eating fish twice a week also can lower your risk. The Healthy Eating Plate from the Harvard School of Public Health can help guide your diet. The DASH Diet is another good resource.

3. Develop Healthy Lifestyle Habits
Regular, moderate-to-intense exercise is essential to reducing cardiovascular risk. Be active for 30 minutes or more on most or all days of the week. If you smoke, quit. Smoking is the most preventable cause of death in the US and a contributor to cardiovascular disease.

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