Health Matters: Heart Health and Stroke: Understanding the Connection 

By Paul Kaiser, M.D.

Want to keep your brain healthy? Start with your heart.

The same factors that increase your risk for a heart attack – namely high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes – also increase your risk for stroke.

That’s why controlling these risk factors and leading a healthy lifestyle is not only good for your heart, it’s also good for your head.

February was American Heart Month. In recognition, take time to learn the risk factors for heart disease and stroke and understand when to call 911.

Every 40 Seconds

Stroke is a disease that affects the arteries leading to and within the brain. A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot (ischemic stroke) or bursts (hemorrhagic stroke).

When that happens, the brain is deprived of the blood and oxygen it needs to function and brain cells die.  Complications of a stroke depend on the area of the brain, but commonly include paralysis on one side of the body, speech or language problems, vision problems and memory loss.

On average someone in the United States suffers a stroke every 40 seconds, and nearly 795,000 people suffer a new or recurrent stroke each year. Moreover, a stroke is the fifth most common cause of death and the leading cause of adult disability in the United States, according to the American Stroke Association, a division of the American Heart Association

Shared Risk Factors

As the American Stroke Association reports, the majority of strokes – 87 percent – are ischemic, resulting from a condition called atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis is characterized by the buildup of plaque or fatty deposits in the arteries that cause them to harden and narrow, reducing blood flow and lessening the amount of oxygen and other nutrients reaching the body.

A stroke can occur when a piece of plaque breaks off and travels through the bloodstream to the brain, getting lodged in the brain’s smaller vessels and blocking blood flow.  It can also occur when a blood clot develops in the plaque within the brain’s blood vessels and obstructs blood flow.

Similarly, when this happens in the heart, it can cause a heart attack.

Risk factors for atherosclerosis, and consequently, stroke and heart attack, include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Aging
  • Family history

Spot Signs Fast

 When it comes to surviving a stroke and preventing permanent damage, it is important to know the warning signs and think fast.

  • When asked to smile does one side of the face droop?
  • When asked to raise both arms, is one side weaker than the other?
  • Is speech slurred or unusual?
  • Call 911 immediately if any of these signs are present. The longer a stroke remains untreated, the greater potential for damage or death.

One of the most important treatments for stroke is a drug called a drug called t-PA (tissue plasminogen activator). However, t-PA can only be administered within three hours of the onset of symptoms. The drug can prevent lingering disabilities in patients with ischemic stroke.

Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center is designated by the state of New Jersey as a Primary Stroke Center, where specially trained acute stroke teams are available 24/7 to diagnose stroke.

As a Primary Stroke Center, PMC maintains neurology and emergency department personnel trained in the diagnosis and treatment of acute stroke, as well as acute rehabilitation services for patients.

Because immediate care is critical to a stroke patient’s survival and recovery, PMC is committed to having a stroke team, including specially trained physicians and registered nurses, available within 15 minutes following the diagnosis of a potential acute stroke.

In addition, PMC has received the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association’s Get With The Guidelines-Stroke Silver Plus Quality Award for its commitment to the latest evidence-based guidelines for diagnosing and treating stroke patients.

Stay Heart Healthy, Stay Brain Healthy

Prevention is the best medicine when it comes to your health. The American Heart Association offers the following steps to help stay heart healthy and reduce your risk for stroke:

  • Try to get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (or a combination of both), preferably spread throughout the week.
  • Eat healthy. Eat a colorful diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts. Try to limit sugary foods and drinks, fatty or processed meats and salt.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Learning to balance healthy eating and physical activity can help you lose weight and keep it off.
  • Control cholesterol. Eating smart and moving more can help lower cholesterol.
  • Manage blood pressure. Stress and poor diet have both been linked to high blood pressure so its important to reduce stress and eat well to manage blood pressure.
  • Reduce blood sugar. Limiting sweets, sugary drinks and processed food as well as exercising more can help lower blood sugar.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking damages your circulatory system and increases your risk for multiple diseases. Not smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health.

For more information about the PMC Stroke Center or to find a physician affiliated with Princeton Health, call 888-742-7496 or visit

Paul Kaiser, M.D., is board certified in clinical neurophysiology, neurology and vascular neurology. He is a member of the Penn Medicine Princeton Health medical staff.