8 Questions with Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada

1. What is heart disease? Is it the same thing as a heart attack?

Heart disease refers to what is really a group of conditions that affect the structure and functions of the heart and has many root causes. Your heart is a muscle and its job is to pump blood around the body. Your heart pumps blood through a network of arteries and veins.

There are many different types of heart disease. Some types can be grouped together according to how they affect the structure or function of your heart. 

Coronary artery and vascular disease are due to hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). Coronary artery disease happens when the arteries in your heart are narrowed or blocked. It’s the most common kind of heart disease and causes most heart attacks as well as angina (chest pain). Vascular disease is problems in other blood vessels which reduce blood flow and affect the function of your heart.

Heart rhythm disorders (arrhythmias) cause the heart to beat too slowly, too quickly, or in a disorganized fashion. Millions of Canadians experience heart rhythm disorders which disrupt blood flow. There are many types of arrhythmias – some have no symptoms or warning signs; others can be sudden and fatal.

Structural heart disease refers to abnormalities of the heart’s structure – including its valves, walls, muscles, or blood vessels near the heart. It can be present at birth (congenital) or acquired after birth through infection, wear and tear, or other factors. People living with heart defects and their families need support throughout every age and stage of their life, often requiring ongoing medical care and surgical procedures.

Heart failure is a serious condition that develops after the heart becomes damaged or weakened. The two most common causes of heart failure are heart attack and high blood pressure. There is no cure, but early diagnosis, lifestyle changes and medication can help people lead an active life, stay out of hospital and live longer.

Other heart diseases include infections, enlarged heart muscle, and inherited disorders.

2. Are there groups of people that need to be extra-aware about heart disease?

There are some risks for heart disease and stroke that we can’t control, including:

• Age: The older you are, the higher your risk of heart disease.

• Family and medical history: If you have a close relative who has experienced heart disease at an early age, you are at an increased risk.

• South Asian & African heritage: People of African or South Asian heritage are more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, or other risk factors.

• Indigenous heritage: First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples are more likely to have high blood pressure and diabetes. This puts them at greater risk

3. How can we prevent and/or manage heart disease?

Prevention starts with knowing your risks. Nine in ten Canadians have at least one risk factor for heart disease and stroke. 

Almost 80 per cent of premature heart disease and stroke can be prevented through healthy behaviours. That means that habits like healthy eating, being active, managing stress, and living smoke free, have a big impact on your health.

There are also some medical conditions that increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, but you can manage them with medication, treatment, and by making healthy choices. The more risk factors you have, the greater your risk.

The key medical conditions that increase your risk for heart disease and stroke include:

• High blood pressure (hypertension)

• High cholesterol

• Diabetes

• Atrial fibrillation

• Pre-eclampsia

• Sleep apnea

of heart disease.

• Sex: Women are at increased risk of heart disease and stroke during certain phases of their lives, in particular during pregnancy and menopause.

4. What is the relationship between heart disease and stroke?

Heart disease and stroke are both types of cardiovascular disease. They share many of the same risk factors, so prevention of the two diseases is very closely related.

When someone has a heart attack, it’s usually due to a blockage of blood flow to the heart, which damages the muscle tissue. When someone has a stroke, it’s usually due to a blockage of blood flow to the brain, killing the brain cells in the affected area.

There are also some heart diseases, such as atrial fibrillation, that can cause blood clots that block the blood flow to the brain, resulting in a stroke.

The heart and the brain are both essential organs for life, so an assault on either is an emergency that requires urgent medical attention.

5. What is a stroke?

A stroke happens when blood stops flowing to any part of your brain, damaging brain cells. The effects of a stroke depend on the part of the brain that was damaged, and the amount of damage done. There are three types of stroke:

Ischemic stroke, caused by a blockage or clot in a blood vessel in your brain. The blockage can be caused when a substance called plaque builds up on the inside wall of an artery.

Hemorrhagic stroke, caused when an artery in the brain breaks open. The interrupted blood flow causes damage to your brain. High blood pressure weakens arteries over time and is a major cause of hemorrhagic stroke.

Transient ischemic attack (TIA), caused by a small clot that briefly blocks an artery. It is sometimes called a mini-stroke or warning stroke. The TIA symptoms usually last less than an hour and may only last a few minutes. TIAs are an important warning that a more serious stroke may occur soon. 

6. What are the signs of stroke, and what should we do if we see or feel them?

Every minute after a stroke begins, 1.9 million brain cells die – stroke is a medical emergency. Everyone has the potential to be a part of saving lives and improved outcomes from stroke by recognizing the signs and understanding the urgency to call 9-1-1 when they witness or experience a stroke. There are excellent treatments for stroke and our provinces have very efficient and effective stroke systems to ensure that a stroke patient receives timely access to treatment. But time is of the essence – the sooner someone having a stroke gets to the right hospital for the right treatment at the right time, the better their chances of good outcomes.

Heart & Stroke’s FAST signs of stroke campaign provides the public with an easy to remember the most common signs of stroke and what to do if they witness or experience one.

There are some additional signs of stroke that are less common. They include:

• Vision changes – blurred or double vision

• Sudden severe headache – usually accompanied by some of the other signs

• Numbness – usually on one side of the body

• Problems with balance

7. What areas are researchers currently focused on in relation to heart disease and stroke?

Heart & Stroke-funded researchers work in the full spectrum of research: basic biomedical, clinical, health systems services, and population health. 

Since our inception 70 years ago, Heart & Stroke has invested more than $1.6 billion in research, making us one of the leading forces supporting Canadian research in heart and brain health. This investment, made possible by Heart & Stroke donors, supports best-in-class researchers across the country. Their innovative studies will set the stage for faster diagnosis, better treatments, and improved quality of life for people living with heart and brain conditions – both in Canada and around the world.

Our research strategy is founded on a commitment to excellence, and to investing in the best science as evaluated by competitive peer review. We fund investigator-driven research, build the capacity and strengths of Canada’s research community, and invest in priorities that will have the greatest impact and benefit to people living with or at risk of heart conditions, stroke or related dementia.

8. How can employers support their employees’ heart health?

There are many ways that employers can support their employees’ heart health, and each organization needs to evaluate the channels and initiatives that work for them. Some suggestions include:

• Co-ordinate workplace CPR/AED/First Aid training

• Share the emergency signs of cardiac arrest, heart attack, and stroke with employees through internal newsletters or intranet sites.

• The Heart & Stroke website has a wealth of healthy living information, including tips and strategies to empower Canadians to adopt healthy lifestyles. This information can also be shared with your employees. 

• Stress and smoking are two risk factors for both heart disease and stroke. Providing your employees with access to support to manage stress or to quit smoking is a great way to support the health of your employees. 

For more information about heart disease, stroke, and how you can decrease your risk, visit heartandstroke.ca.