By: Alison Dunn Mar 01, 2011
Deadly cousins

I’ve always been a little fuzzy on the connection between a heart attack and a stroke.

The two always seemed so different to me in my head, but when you hear about one, you often hear about the other. Even the main foundation in Canada is called the Heart AND Stroke Foundation, for goodness sake. But for the life of me, I could never see the connection between the two. A heart attack, to me, was just that – your heart suddenly goes into cardiac arrest and stops. A stroke seemed much more neurological to me – something goes wrong in your brain, causing damage, paralysis and even death.

I’ve since found out that the two are both related by blood – literally. A heart attack happens when blood isn’t getting to the heart, and a stroke happens when blood isn’t getting to the brain. Two different (but both potentially fatal) outcomes caused when parts of the body are deprived of blood.

Another reason the two are linked is because both the risk factors and prevention strategies are remarkably similar. People who have high blood cholesterol or high blood pressure are at risk of both heart attack and stroke. Ditto people who are overweight, have diabetes, are physically inactive or smoke. To prevent both, you need to quit smoking, cut back on your sodium intake, exercise, eat well and reduce stress as much as possible.

Suffice it to say that the two are like close cousins, albeit deadly, dangerous ones. The same goes for other types of heart disease like arrhythmia, atherosclerosis, angina, coronary artery disease and many more.

But it’s not just heart attacks (or heart disease) and stroke that are so closely related. Look at the risk factors of many types of cancer and you’ll find the same things: smoking, lack of exercise, poor diet, being overweight. Same goes for many other diseases. Even when a disease is caused by genetics or other factors beyond our control, being overweight, smoking and a poor diet can make it worse. It’s like all of the diseases out there that we face are closely related.

There is hope. These diseases are like deadly cousins – but they can all be fought with a healthy lifestyle. Eating a healthy diet of fresh, whole fruits and veggies, getting regular exercise, quitting smoking, getting enough sleep – you could say these things are all part of the good health family.

And unlike our real relatives, we all have a choice of which “family” we want to belong to. We choose every day with the foods we eat, the activities we do and the lifestyle we live. I know which family sounds best to me. Which one will you choose?

A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.