What Are Heart Disease and Stroke?

Updated:Dec 8,2015
There are many types of heart and blood vessel diseases. Many of them 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, and sodium (salt).
  • Be physically active.
  • Reach and maintain a healthy weight.
  • 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 blood flow in the artery. This can cause a heart attack or stroke.
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, immediately 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
F.A.S.T. is an easy way to remember how to recognize a stroke and what to do. Spot a stroke FAST. Face drooping. Arm weakness. Speech Difficulty. Time to call 9-1-1.

How can I learn more?
  1. Call 1-800-AHA-USA1 (1-800-242-8721), or visit heart.org to learn more about heart disease and stroke.
  2. Sign up to get Heart Insight, a free magazine for heart patients and their families, at heartinsight.org.
  3. Connect with others sharing similar journeys with heart disease and stroke by joining our Support Network at heart.org/supportnetwork.
We have many other fact sheets 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.
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?

©2015, American Heart Association

Multi-language Fact Sheet Topics

Heart-related Conditions
What is Angina?
What is an Arrhythmia?
What Is Atrial Fibrillation?
What Do My Cholesterol Levels Mean?
How Can I Improve My Cholesterol?
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
Stroke, TIA and Warning Signs
What Are the Warning Signs of Stroke?
Stroke Risk Factors
Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Stroke
Stroke Diagnosis
Complications After Stroke
Changes Caused by Stroke
Emotional Changes After Stroke
Feeling Tired After a Stroke
Stroke and Aphasia
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?
How Do I Manage My Medicines?
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?
How Can I Cook Healthfully?
Why Should I Limit Sodium?
How Do I Understand "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?