What Are Heart Disease and Stroke?

Updated:Feb 8,2013
There are many types of heart and blood vessel diseases. Over 82 million Americans have one or more of them. Each year more than 813,000 people die from them — that’s over 33 percent of all deaths in the United States! Yet many types of heart disease and stroke can be prevented. Here are some key steps you can take:
  • Don’t smoke, and avoid second-hand smoke.
  • Lower your blood pressure if it’s high.
  • Eat a healthy diet low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and salt.
  • Be physically active.
  • Keep your weight under control.
  • Get regular medical check-ups.
  • Follow your doctor’s orders for taking medicine.
  • Control your blood sugar if you have diabetes.
What are some types of heart and blood vessel diseases?
HARDENING OF THE ARTERIES, or atherosclerosis, is when the inner walls of arteries become narrower due to a buildup of plaque (usually caused by a diet high in fat, cigarette smoking, diabetes or hypertension). This limits the flow of blood to the heart and brain. Sometimes, this plaque can break open. When this happens, a blood clot forms and blocks the artery. This can cause heart attacks and strokes.
HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE, also called hypertension, means the pressure in your arteries is consistently above the normal range. Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against blood vessel walls. It’s written as two numbers, such as 122/78 mm Hg. The top number (systolic) is the pressure when the heart beats. The bottom number (diastolic) is the pressure when the heart rests between beats. High blood pressure is a pressure of 140 systolic or higher and/or 90 diastolic or higher that stays high over time.
The danger is that you usually can’t tell you have high blood pressure! There are no signs, so you must see a doctor every year. Also, no one knows exactly what causes it. Yet, high blood pressure can lead to hardened arteries, stroke or heart attack.
HEART ATTACKS occur when the blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked, usually by a blood clot. If this clot cuts off the blood flow completely, the part of the heart muscle supplied by that artery begins to die.
Here are some of the signs of a heart attack:
  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
If you have one or more of these signs, don’t wait more than 5 minutes before calling for help. Call 9-1-1…Get to a hospital right away.
HEART FAILURE means that your heart isn’t pumping blood as well as it should. It keeps working, but the body doesn’t get all the blood and oxygen it needs. See a doctor if you notice any of these symptoms:
  • Swelling in feet, ankles and legs, called “edema”.
  • Fluid build-up in the lungs, called “pulmonary congestion”.
STROKE and TIA happen when a blood vessel that feeds the brain gets blocked or bursts. Then that part of the brain can’t work and neither can the part of the body it controls. Major risk factors for stroke include:
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart disease
  • Atrial fibrillation (Abnormal heart rhythm)
Call 9-1-1 to get help fast if you have any of these warning signs of stroke and TIA:
  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body   
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding   
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes   
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination   
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause
How can I learn more?
  1. Talk to your doctor, nurse or other healthcare professionals. If you have heart disease or have had a stroke, members of your family also may be at higher risk. It’s very important for them to make changes now to lower their risk.
  2. Call 1-800-AHA-USA1 (1-800-242-8721), or visit heart.org to learn more about heart disease.
  3. For information on stroke, call 1-888-4-STROKE (1-888-478-7653) or visit us online at StrokeAssociation.org
We have many other fact sheets and educational booklets to help you make healthier choices to reduce your risk, manage disease or care for a loved one. Visit heart.org/answersbyheart to learn more.
Knowledge is power, so Learn and Live!
Do you have questions or comments for your doctor or nurse?
Take a few minutes to write your own questions for the next time you see your healthcare provider. For example:
How can I reduce my risk of heart disease and stroke?
What medicines may help me?

©2012, American Heart Association

Multi-language Fact Sheet Topics

Heart-related Conditions
What is Angina?
What is an Arrhythmia?
What Is Atrial Fibrillation?
How Can I Lower High Cholesterol?
What Do My Cholesterol Levels Mean?
What Are High Blood Cholesterol and Triglycerides?
What Is High Blood Pressure?
How Can I Reduce High Blood Pressure?
High Blood Pressure and Stroke
What Is Diabetes and How Can I Manage It?
How Can I Live With Heart Failure?
What Is Heart Failure?
What Is a Heart Attack?
How Will I Recover From My Heart Attack?
What Are the Warning Signs of Heart Attack?
What Are Heart Disease and Stroke?
What is Metabolic Syndrome?
What is Peripheral Vascular Disease?

Stroke, Recovery and Caregiving
Hemorrhagic Stroke
Ischemic Stroke
What Are the Warning Signs of Stroke?
Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Stroke
Stroke Diagnosis
Changes Caused by Stroke
Emotional Changes After Stroke
Feeling Tired After a Stroke
Stroke and Rehabilitation
Stroke Family Caregivers
How Should I Care for Myself as a Caregiver?

Treatment, Tests and Procedures
What is Cholesterol-Lowering Medicine?
What is High Blood Pressure Medicine?
What Are Anticoagulants and Antiplatelet Agents?
What Is an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator?
What Is a Pacemaker?
What Is Coronary Angioplasty?
What is a Stent?
What is Coronary Bypass Surgery?
What is a Coronary Angiogram?
How Can I Recover From Heart Surgery?
What is Carotid Endarterectomy?

Healthy Lifestyle and Risk Reduction
How Can I Manage My Weight?
How Can Physical Activity Become a Way of Life?
Why Should I Be Physically Active?
How Do I Follow a Healthy Diet?
Why Should I Limit Sodium?
How Do I Read "Nutrition Facts" Labels?
How Can I Quit Smoking?
How Can I Manage Stress?
How Can I Make My Lifestyle Healthier?
How Can I Monitor My Cholesterol, Blood Pressure and Weight?