Heart attacks and strokes have a lot in common. Both are medical emergencies, both have to do with blood not being able to go where it needs to. If you think you’re having either, you need to call 911 right away.
Knowing which is which can help you communicate with EMTs better so they can guide you on what to do until help arrives. It’s also useful to understand the differences in case you’re a bystander to someone who’s having one of these problems. It’s not unlikely: Every 40 seconds, someone has a heart attack in the U.S., according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
According to Rabia Rafi Razi, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical science at Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine in Pasadena, California, the main difference between a heart attack or stroke is where it is located. In the case of a heart attack, that’s a coronary artery; with a stroke, it’s in a cerebral artery (in the brain). “The cause is usually very similar—a blockage in the arteries causes decreased blood supply to the organ,” explains Dr. Razi. “In fact, sometimes a stroke is known as a ‘brain attack.’”
Here, Dr. Razi breaks down the differences between these two medical events, symptoms to watch for, and prevention strategies for each one.
What is a heart attack?
According to the AHA, a heart attack occurs when the arteries that provide blood flow to the heart muscle narrow from a buildup of plaque, which is composed of fat, cholesterol, and other substances. (Find out more about the tests that can tell you if you’re at risk of a heart attack here.)
When this plaque accumulates, a blood clot can form around it, which can block blood flow through the artery to the heart muscle, resulting in a heart attack. That involves damage or death to the heart muscle.
“Rarely, these blockages can be caused by a blood clot that is traveling through the bloodstream,” Dr. Razi explains. “And there are also instances in which the arteries are clear but there is a drop in blood pressure to the point that there is decreased blood flow within the arteries.”
What is a stroke?
Meanwhile, in the case of a stroke, the decrease in the blood supply is to the brain. Strokes often occur when a blood vessel to the brain gets blocked, or it bursts. There are other causes of strokes as well, including irregular heartbeats (including atrial fibrillation), heart structure problems, hardening of the arteries, or blood clotting disorders.
What are the symptoms of a heart attack?
Distinct symptoms of a heart attack, according to the AHA, include:
- Chest pain that lingers for more than a few minutes
- Discomfort or pain in one or both arms
- Jaw, neck or back pain
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweats
- Lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting
What are the symptoms of a stroke?
These are quite different and often more distinct than the signs of a heart attack. According to the CDC, signs include:
- Drooping face
- Sudden numbness or weakness in your arms or sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or lack of coordination.
- Slurred or difficult-to-understand speech
- Sudden confusion or difficulty understanding speech
- Sudden trouble seeing
- Sever headache with no known cause
How can you prevent a heart attack or stroke?
Prevention strategies for a heart attack and stroke are the same. “There are a whole host of lifestyle factors that can reduce risks of heart attacks and strokes,” Dr. Razi says. “Smoking cessation is probably one of the biggest things that an individual can do to decrease their risk of heart attacks and stroke,” Dr. Razi says. Diet and exercise can help reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol, both of which raise your risk for heart attack and stroke. Check out 25 more ways to protect your heart (and brain) here.
It’s important to see a doctor and get the right tests to know what your risk of heart attack and stroke is and figure out how to take that risk down. For instance, “for someone that is at high risk of having a heart attack or a stroke, statin medications have shown great preventive benefits,” Dr. Razi says. The American Heart Association says that about 80 percent of cardiovascular disease, which includes stroke and heart attack, is preventable. Ask a doc, dietician or other healthcare pro for tips if you’re struggling over how to get going to reduce your risk.
Emilia Benton is a Houston-based freelance writer and editor. In addition to Runner’s World, she has contributed health, fitness and wellness content to Women’s Health, SELF, Prevention, Healthline, and the Houston Chronicle, among other publications. She is also an 11-time marathoner, a USATF Level 1-certified running coach, and an avid traveler.