Know the Facts about Stroke and Heart Disease—It Could Save Your Life

What actually happens when we have a stroke or heart attack?

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Heart disease comes in many forms. Professor Anding describes the categories, warning signs, and preventative measures.

Doctor with stroke patient holding hands
The American Heart Association lists symptoms such as uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain, including discomfort or pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach, as indications of a heart attack or stroke. Photo By Lordn / Shutterstock

What Is a Heart Attack?

Before delving into the different types of strokes and heart disease, let’s explore what actually happens when you have a heart attack. The blood supply to the heart is interrupted and severe damage and death occurs in that arterial wall, causing death to the heart tissue. 

Due to the blockage of an artery, the fibrous cap (what is formed when the smooth muscles of the artery cells expand due to cholesterol plaque buildup) often ruptures. As it ruptures, white blood cells move in like an army.

Platelets come in to deal with the injury and as they aggregate, or stick together, they form a clot within your arterial wall. Some estimates suggest that a major cause of heart disease is not just the constriction of the arterial wall, but it also includes the fact that the fibrous cap ruptures, white blood cells and platelets enter and form a clot, and that clot then restricts blood flow.

Types of Strokes

A cerebrovascular accident, often known as a stroke, follows the same kind of process. It damages the brain tissue, resulting in a loss of brain function due to an interruption in the blood supply to the brain. 

If you think about a myocardial infarction as a heart attack, a stroke is a brain attack, and again, it’s most often due to the formation of that blood clot within a vessel—an embolism or a piece of that plaque breaks off somewhere and causes a blockage. This type of stroke is known as a thrombotic because it forms a thrombus or blood clot.

A hemorrhagic stroke is different. It’s simply defined as bleeding in the brain. 

Rethinking Omega 3s

Diet can lead to these kinds of strokes. For example, the Greenland Eskimos, as a population, are generally obese smokers. While they typically don’t die of heart disease, they do have an increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke.

They eat a high-fat diet consisting of coldwater fish—they may be eating whale, seal, or other marine protein that they harvest from the seas. This diet is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can interfere with blood clotting when consumed in excess. 

That’s why a large dose of omega-3 fatty acids should be ordered by a physician. Currently most recommendations for omega-3 fatty acids are somewhere in the range of two grams of fish oil per day. 

“The key message here is that omega-3 fatty acids can be both helpful in the prevention of the most common forms of heart attack and stroke, and harmful because they can increase the likelihood of hemorrhagic stroke,” Professor Anding said. 

Thus, as with most things, moderation is key.

Symptoms of a stroke include dizziness, severe headaches, nausea, and vomiting. Often, these symptoms don’t typically get our attention. When you have a headache or nausea, you’re not necessarily thinking of a stroke. 

However, if you experience numbness in the limbs, slurred speech, the inability to speak, vision loss, lack of coordination, or the inability to walk, these are your warning signs. For example, if you’re out with your spouse, and suddenly he or she cannot communicate with you and has a blank look, you should call 911. Early intervention can be lifesaving. 

Other Forms of Cardiovascular Disease

Most notably, congestive heart failure is structural or functional problems within the heart that impair its ability to provide adequate blood flow to the rest of your body. Think about your heart as a pump, and imagine that the pump becomes less effective. 

It’s not pumping as hard or it’s pumping at irregular rates, and often prior heart damage impairs the functioning of the heart. When the heart can’t pump blood, nutrient delivery is compromised, and fluid is retained.

The heart cannot deliver blood to the tissues, so the fluid accumulation becomes significant. Often, sodium restriction must be enforced to minimize the fluid retention in congestive heart failure.

Causes of congestive heart failure include long-standing atherosclerosis (a buildup of cholesterol plaque in the walls of arteries) and high blood pressure. Prevention, then, is consistent with the other major causes of heart disease. We should consume dairy, fried foods, processed meats, and sodium in moderation while eating plenty of fruits and vegetables along with nuts and whole grains.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.

About Kate Findley 437 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.