What does your heart health have to do with your stroke risk?

Quite a bit, actually. Many of the risk factors for stroke overlap with those for heart disease and heart attack. But beyond that, certain heart conditions increase your risk for stroke, too.

In fact, several types of heart disease are risk factors for stroke. And stroke is a risk factor for heart disease. Are you confused yet?

“Many people think of stroke and heart disease as totally separate,” says Matthew Wiisanen, MD, Director of Structural Heart Disease at the Erlanger Heart and Lung Institute. “And while it’s true that the two conditions are different, certain heart conditions increase a person’s risk of developing a stroke.”

Read on as we take a deeper dive into the topic.

Stroke & heart disease risk factors

First things first, let’s talk about the risk factors these two separate medical conditions have in common. There are risk factors for each that are considered modifiable, meaning you have the potential to change them.

Risk factors for both conditions include:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High total or LDL cholesterol
  • Low HDL cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Being overweight or obese

You can take steps to lower your risk by not smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight.

The heart & stroke: Atherosclerosis

Any type of heart artery disease affects all the blood vessels in the body, not just the heart. This makes blood clots more likely.

That in turn increases the risk of stroke, since the condition occurs when a blood vessel carrying oxygen and nutrients to the brain is blocked by a clot or bursts.

Atherosclerosis is a condition that occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries, which makes them stiff and hard. It can affect arteries anywhere in the body, cutting off blood flow to the heart, arms and legs, or brain.

When the latter occurs, a stroke can result.

The heart & stroke: Heart failure

Heart failure is a chronic condition that occurs when the heart is no longer able to pump blood efficiently throughout the body.

When this happens, blood is more likely to form into a clot, which in turn can result in a stroke.

Heart failure symptoms can occur gradually and may include shortness of breath, swelling in the extremities and extreme fatigue.

The heart & stroke: Patent Foramen Ovale
This condition, also referenced as PFO, is a type of heart defect. A PFO is a hole in the heart between the left and right atria.

Everyone is born with this opening, which looks like a flap, but it typically closes itself up shortly after birth. However, in around 30 percent of Americans, the flap doesn’t close.

When a person has a PFO, blood that hasn’t gone through the lungs and been cleansed flows through the flap, which can carry debris and blood clots into the bloodstream.

Blood clots can travel through the PFO to the brain, which can result in a stroke. In fact, each year around 100,000 Americans experience a PFO-related stroke.

“Many times, PFOs aren’t actually diagnosed until a person experiences a stroke with no known cause,” Dr. Wiisanen says. “If it’s determined a patient has a PFO, there are several options for treatment, including medication and catheter-based procedures to close the flap.”

The heart & stroke: Atrial Septal Defect

An atrial septal defect, or ASD, is also a hole in the heart. An ASD is a hole in the wall between the top two chambers in the heart.

When an ASD is small, it may not affect the heart in any substantial way. But larger ASDs can cause blood to flow abnormally.

ASDs can be treated using open-heart surgery or cardiac catheterization, which plugs the hole, restoring normal blood flow.

The heart & stroke: Left Atrial Appendage

This one’s not a medical condition. Everyone has a left atrial appendage, also called an LAA. It’s a small sac in the wall of the left atrium, the top left chamber of the heart.

In a normal heart, the heart contracts when the heart beats — and blood in the left atrium and LAA moves out of the left atrium and into the left ventricle (the bottom left chamber of the heart).

But in patients who have atrial fibrillation, when the heart rhythm is abnormal, blood doesn’t travel effectively and can pool in the LAA. This collection of blood can form into a clot, which can travel to the brain and cause a stroke.

While it may not be well-known, this is actually a significant cause of stroke. Those with atrial fibrillation are up to 7 times more likely to develop a stroke — and about 90 percent of strokes in those with AFib result from clots that formed in the LAA.

If a person is diagnosed with AFib, blood thinners or closure of the LAA are options that can help lessen the risk of stroke. In the past, a surgical procedure was often required to close the LAA. However, a new innovation is changing that for some patients.

The WATCHMAN is an FDA-approved device that self-expands and closes the LAA. Implanting the procedure does not require surgery.

“When it comes to your heart and stroke risk, the best thing you can do is take good care of your heart health,” Dr. Wiisanen says. “Practice a heart-healthy lifestyle and talk with your doctor about any symptoms you experience, so that any conditions can be treated promptly.”

Think the Watchman device might be right for you or have other questions about your heart? Book an appointment with Erlanger Structural Cardiology or call the Erlanger Heart and Lung Institute today at 423-778-5661.