What’s the Difference Between a Stroke and a Heart Attack?
Both stroke and heart attack symptoms happen suddenly and without warning. While both have symptoms in common, other symptoms are different. Here, we’ll outline the differences between strokes and heart attacks, their effects on the body, and things you can do to help prevent them from happening.
What are the Signs of a Heart Attack?
A heart attack occurs when blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked, usually by a blood clot. The damage to the heart muscle is usually caused by a blocked artery, which prevents oxygen from getting to the muscle tissue of the heart. A heart attack is the most common cause of death in the U.S. The classic warning symptoms and signs of a heart attack in men and women may include:
- Chest pain. Most heart attacks involve pain or discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like squeezing, uncomfortable pressure, fullness, or pain.
- Shortness of breath. This can happen with or without chest discomfort.
- Sweating. Breaking out into a cold sweat for no apparent reason can also be a sign of a heart attack.
- Nausea. Feeling nauseous or lightheaded, especially when combined with any of the symptoms described above, can be a sign of a heart attack.
What are the Signs of a Stroke?
A stroke happens when your brain tissue becomes deprived of oxygen, leading to damage or death of the brain tissue in the area affected by the stroke. The most common cause of a stroke is a clot that blocks a blood vessel in the brain (ischemic stroke). Strokes can result in permanent brain tissue damage and/or death. It’s the fifth most common form of death in the U.S.
Knowing how to identify the symptoms of a stroke is vital for emergency treatment. The acronym FAST can help you recognize when you or someone near you is having a stroke. FAST stands for:
- Facial drooping. Does one side of the face droop? Ask the person to smile.
- Arm weakness. Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
- Speech difficulty. Is speech slurred, are they unable to speak, or are they hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like “the sky is blue.” Is this sentence repeated correctly?
- Time for action. If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 9-1-1 and get them to the hospital immediately.
What are the Differences Between a Stroke and a Heart Attack?
The most common cause of a stroke is a blood clot in an artery within the brain that can cut off blood flow to the brain. The other main type of stroke is a hemorrhagic stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures and blood leaks into the surrounding tissues. High blood pressure that strains the walls of your arteries can cause a hemorrhagic stroke.
The most common cause of a heart attack is a coronary artery that becomes blocked or narrows so much that blood flow to the heart stops or is severely restricted. A heart attack can also happen if too much cholesterol plaque builds up in the artery, which slows or stops blood flow.
Heart attacks and strokes have some signs and symptoms that are similar, including:
- Both usually have a sudden onset
- Both are caused by disruptions in the flow of oxygen-rich blood
- Both produce signs and symptoms suddenly
- Both can cause debilitating symptoms and health problems that may or may not improve over time
- Both can be disabling
- Both should be treated immediately in an emergency department
- Both can cause death if enough of the person’s brain or heart tissue is severely damaged
Which is worse, heart attack or stroke? Put simply, you don’t want to have either because both can lead to disability or death. Those who have a stroke may have more difficulty afterward if they survive a stroke than if they survive a heart attack, but this will depend on how much brain tissue is damaged after the stroke. Strokes can cause profound life-altering disabilities, such as losing the ability to communicate verbally or using certain parts of your body. If you fear permanent disability more than death, you may think that a stroke is worse than a heart attack.
Is it possible to have a stroke and a heart attack at the same time? Since plaques are often found in arteries that supply both the heart and brain, strokes and heart attacks can happen simultaneously during high-risk times.
How You Can Reduce the Chances of a Stroke and a Heart Attack
When it comes to heart attacks and strokes, the best treatment is prevention. Here are some proactive things you can do to reduce your chances of having a stroke or a heart attack:
- Don’t smoke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that smoking is a major cause of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and causes one of every three deaths from CVD. Smoking raises the level of fat in the blood and makes it more likely to clot, which can lead to blockages of flow in the heart and brain and lead to a heart attack or stroke.
- Exercise daily. Stay active. Try to get 150 minutes of exercise of moderate activity every week, or about 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
- Eat healthy foods. To keep your heart and brain healthy, look to limit excess sugar, fat, and salt. A low-fat diet that limits refined carbohydrates and animal proteins can be a good start.
Next Steps and Useful Resources:
Life After Stroke: What to Expect During Recovery & Rehab
Stroke Health Risk Assessment
Different Types of Strokes
5 Surprising Heart Attack Triggers – And How to Avoid Them
Is it Heartburn or a Heart Attack?