Published on February 25, 2014

Doctors on Call: The difference between heart attack and stroke

         By Anthony Magnano

About every 34 seconds, someone in the U.S. suffers from a heart attack. That sounds like a lot. And it is. But while 715,000 Americans have heart attacks each year, even more suffer from stroke or “brain attack.”

The difference between a heart attack and a brain attack may seem obvious, but the two vascular events share a common link — the disruption of blood flow.

To understand this connection, you must first understand the two medical problems.


The makings of a heart attack begin with the narrowing of the coronary arteries caused by the development of plaque — a collection of fat and cholesterol — and end with a clot forming that blocks blood flow to the heart.

If the blockage results in damage or death to part of the heart muscle, a heart attack occurs.

Contrary to popular belief, a heart attack is not the same event as a cardiac arrest. Although a heart attack can cause a cardiac arrest, the latter occurs when the heart’s electrical system malfunctions, as opposed to a blockage in the artery.


Like a heart attack, a brain attack occurs when blood flow is interrupted; the difference in the two events lies in where the interruption takes place.

There are a couple of different types of stroke based on whether the blood flow is disrupted through blockage or hemorrhage.

An ischemic stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks a blood vessel in the brain, causing damage or death to the tissue.

In contrast, when a blood vessel bursts and bleeds in the brain, hemorrhagic stroke occurs.

Another type of stroke is a transient ischemic attack (TIA), essentially a “mini-stroke” caused by a temporary clot. TIA symptoms mirror those of other kinds of strokes, but because they occur quickly and usually last less than five minutes, this brain attack often goes unnoticed.

While a TIA doesn’t usually cause permanent injury to the brain, it serves as a warning for patients and gives them time to seek further medical treatment in preventing ischemic or hemorrhagic strokes.


Heart attack and stroke share common risk factors, including obesity, lack of exercise, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, vascular disease and diabetes.

The good news is that you can take proactive steps to maintain your heart health and keep your blood vessels blockage free.

Keep track of your blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure and body weight. Knowing your numbers will allow you to get a better handle on which areas you need to improve and to help track your progress.

Diet and exercise are also crucial to controlling the risk factors.

Instead of trying to overhaul your entire diet at once, take time to pinpoint unhealthy foods in your present diet that can be replaced by new, heart-healthy ones.

When evaluating your fitness goals, try to follow the American Heart Association’s recommendation of exercising at least 30 minutes per day, five times per week. It’s also important to avoid tobacco use.

American Heart Month in February is the ideal time to reflect on your cardiovascular health and to try to prevent life-threatening events.

Although these attacks can sometimes affect those without risk factors, the best way to combat either is to embrace healthy living.