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The Brain and Heart Connection

By: Richard C. Senelick, M.D.

We don’t always think of the brain and heart being intimately connected, but they are. When we talk about a heart attack we need to also think about the possibility of a stroke and if someone has a stroke, we need to look at what might be going on in their heart.

A heart attack occurs when one or more of the coronary arteries gets a buildup of plaque and that artery closes off, causing damage to the heart muscle.  We refer to this as coronary artery disease causing a myocardial infarction. If the blood supply to the brain is blocked by a similar plaque, that part of the brain will be damaged and we call that a stroke.  Both problems are caused by a buildup of fatty deposits called atherosclerosis. The brain is a bit different in that there are two additional causes of a stroke. A blood vessel may rupture causing a hemorrhage in the brain or a blot clot (embolus) can travel from the heart or other part of the body to clog an artery in the brain and cause a stroke.

The peak age varies for heart attacks and strokes. The average age for a heart attack is 66 in men and 70 in women, although the chances of having a heart attack increases steadily after the age of 45.  On the other hand, strokes are more likely to occur later in life with three quarters occurring after the age of 65 years and a peak occurring after age 75. However, just because you are young doesn’t mean you can ignore the medical issues that may lead to a heart attack or stroke.   

Risk factors
Both heart attacks and strokes share many of the same risk factors:

The brain has another problem to worry about. Atrial fibrillation is a disorder where the atrial chamber in the heart “wiggles” instead of contracting regularly. Blood clots can form in the atrium and travel up to the brain to cause a stroke.  The risk of having atrial fibrillation increases significantly as we age, and it is important to teach people to take their pulse and look for irregularities. Many times a person does not realize that they are in atrial fibrillation. Once identified your doctor may attempt to convert you back to a regular heart rhythm, but you will most likely end up taking a type of blood thinner, to prevent the formation of blood clots.

What you can do to prevent a stroke or heart attack?
We have a simple saying that, “If it is good for the heart, then it is also good for the brain.” First it is never too early to start to eliminate bad habits and acquire more good habits.

Heart attacks and strokes are preventable. Don’t wait until you have had one and are working on preventing a second episode. Get to work now.

Remember, if it is good for your heart, it is also good for your brain.

Learn more about inpatient rehabilitation at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Sewickley by visiting, and Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Harmarville at

Richard C. Senelick, M.D. is a neurologist, author, speaker and teacher. As the Editor in Chief of Encompass Health Press, the publishing arm of one of the nation’s largest hospital systems and the author of more than 15 nonfiction books, Dr. Senelick is one of the leading experts on neurorehabilitation.

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