What is the Difference Between Stroke and Heart Attack?

Michelle Routhenstein, MS, RD, CDE


August 15, 2022

Heart attacks and strokes are serious health conditions that can come on suddenly. They have similar causes and risk factors, but symptoms and treatment for each can differ. If you are at risk for heart disease, it is essential to understand the difference between heart attack and stroke.

When differentiating between a heart attack vs stroke, there are a few key distinctions. A heart attack occurs when there is a blockage in an artery to your heart, and a stroke occurs when there is a blockage to your brain. 

When it comes to anything cardiac-related, knowledge and prevention are key. And if you’ve already suffered a heart attack or stroke, you may be at an increased risk for the next 5 years. So not only is it critical to know how to prevent stroke and heart attack in the first place, but it is equally as important to prevent recurrent cardiovascular events. 

This article will review the difference between heart attacks vs strokes, risk factors, and common symptoms to look out for. You’ll also learn how to reduce your risk of these potentially life-threatening conditions through healthy and sustainable lifestyle changes.

Risk Factors for Heart Attack and Stroke

Heart attack and strokes are often lumped into the cardiovascular disease category, as they share similar risk factors. While both conditions result in a blockage, the organs that are affected by that blockage are different.

As a Cardiology Dietitian, I work with clients every day to reduce their risk factors for these two incredibly common conditions.

Primary risk factors include:1,2

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Family history and genetic risk
  • Older age
  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese
  • A diet high in saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, and sugar
  • Excess alcohol use
  • A sedentary lifestyle

All of these factors increase the risk of plaque buildup in the arteries leading to your heart and brain. This eventually results in a blockage on its way to your heart (in the case of a heart attack) or your brain (in the case of a stroke). 

While stroke and heart attack are more common in older adults, they can occur at any age and are not solely an “old man’s disease.” If you have any of these risk factors, it’s imperative to be proactive, get screened, and lead as healthy a lifestyle as possible.

It’s also important to remember that even if you have a family history of heart disease, that doesn’t mean you are destined to suffer a heart attack. Many of these risk factors can be reduced with healthy lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, limiting alcohol intake, improving your diet, and getting in more physical activity, no matter what your genes say.3 

In fact, lifestyle factors play a much greater role than genetics in your overall cardiovascular disease risk, according to a recent study. This study confirmed that the lifestyle factors listed above have a much greater impact on heart disease risk than a family history.4 

Therefore, if you want to lower your risk, a healthy lifestyle can make a major impact. If you do have a family history, understanding the root causes, symptoms, and treatment for heart attack and stroke can give you the tools you need to get started on a healthier path.5

What is a Heart Attack?

The arteries, which start out smooth and elastic, get plaque on their inner walls, which can make them more rigid and narrowed. This restricts blood flow to your heart, which can then become starved of oxygen.

A heart attack is when an artery is blocked that goes to the heart. This is called the coronary artery, and it is responsible for transporting blood and oxygen from the heart to the rest of the body. When the heart doesn’t get enough blood, it can cause long-term damage to the heart muscle.6

Heart attack causes

Blockage in the coronary artery occurs if a blood clot stops blood flow. It can also occur when too much plaque from cholesterol builds up and prevents healthy blood and oxygen from circulating to the heart. 

Heart attack symptoms

Symptoms of a heart attack can come on suddenly and most commonly include:7 

  • Chest pain, tightness, or pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Profuse sweating
  • Nausea

If any of these symptoms have occurred, call 911 immediately.

Keep in mind that not everyone experiences these symptoms, and some people may experience them at first only with physical exertion. Women or those with diabetes may also experience more atypical symptoms such as jaw or throat discomfort.8

What is a Stroke?

You may be wondering what is the difference between stroke and heart attack? A stroke is when a blocked artery occurs in a blood vessel to the brain. When this occurs, there is a lack of blood flow and oxygen to the brain, leading to brain death.

Stroke causes

A stroke is typically caused due to one of two factors:9

Aneurysm – This occurs when a blood vessel that leads to the brain ruptures due to pressure.

Arterial malformation – When a group of abnormal blood vessels is present. These are weak blood vessels that are more prone to rupture and cause a stroke.

Just like a heart attack, diet, lifestyle, and genetic factors can increase the risk of stroke.10

Stroke symptoms

Stroke symptoms can also come on suddenly without major warning signs. Common symptoms include:11

  • Numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg (usually occurring on one side of the body)
  • Blurry vision in one or both eyes
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty speaking or getting your words out
  • Issues with walking, coordination, or balance
  • Dizziness
  • A severe and sudden headache

If you experience any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately. The sooner you get treated for a stroke, the better, as this can reduce the risk of long-term complications and enable you to receive proper treatment.

Heart Attack vs Stroke Treatment

Treatment for a heart attack involves a combination of lifestyle changes, medicine, and when needed, a procedure such as a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) or angioplasty with a stent.12

Treatment for stroke involves these same lifestyle changes as well as medications or surgery, depending on the type and the severity of the stroke. For example, a medication called tissue plasminogen activator may be given to break up the blood clot or surgery may be needed to repair a damaged blood vessel.13

Lifestyle changes needed for both a heart attack and stroke include:

Optimizing nutrition – Modifying the diet to add in more anti-inflammatory foods, healthy fats, and antioxidants in place of the plaque-producing saturated fats and sugar.14

Heart-healthy diets historically feel restrictive and are difficult to follow long-term, which is why I always focus on what to ADD to the diet with my clients, rather than what to remove. 

Physical activity – A combination of cardio and strength training exercises is recommended to strengthen your heart muscles, improve blood flow and support a healthy weight.15

Stress management – Chronic stress can put a strain on your cardiovascular system. Learning practical strategies to better handle stress can reduce future risk and improve your quality of life.16

If you have concerns about your heart health, consult with your doctor to obtain a cardiac workup including bloodwork to understand your risk.

Seek Support to Optimize Your Heart Health 

While the thought of a heart attack or stroke feels scary, you can reduce your fears and risk factors with the right guidance and support system. As a Registered Dietitian with years of specialized experience in cardiology care, I help create a personalized diet plan to help reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke naturally. 

I have helped hundreds of clients just like you reduce their risk for heart attacks and stroke or recover after they have already had an episode. When we work together you will also learn how to implement heart-healthy lifestyle changes that ADD to your quality of life, not take away from it.

If you need expert advice and support in your heart health journey, learn more about my 1:1 services here.


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