How Heart Disease Can Lead to Stroke

If you have been diagnosed with heart disease, it is important to understand the condition can lead to serious health problems if left untreated. You should attend all recommended medical appointments and adhere to all recommended lifestyle changes even if your symptoms are not bothersome day-to-day. Poorly managed heart disease can have major health consequences, including an increased risk for stroke.

Medical practice, stress ECG, test to measure the cardiac function of a patient on a cardio machine
Jochen Tack / Getty Images 

Types of Heart Disease Associated With Stroke

Stroke is a serious medical condition characterized by interrupted or reduced blood supply to the brain. Healthy, regular blood flow in the brain is required to ensure the brain gets the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function. The association between heart disease and stroke risk is based on the heart's role in providing blood flow to the brain.

Different types of heart disease associated with stroke include:

Heart Rhythm Abnormalities (Arrhythmia)

A healthy heart is able to maintain a regular, steady heartbeat. Each heartbeat reliably pumps blood throughout your body about 60-100 times per minute.

There is a type of heart disease characterized by an irregular heartbeat. An irregular heartbeat is called an arrhythmia. When the heart pumps irregularly, this can lead to a series of events that may cause a stroke.

The most common type of arrhythmia is called atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is caused by abnormal electrical firing in the heart due to a malfunction of the heart’s natural pacemaker, which is located in a compartment of the heart called the right atrium.

Ventricular fibrillation is another of the commonly identified cardiac arrhythmias. Ventricular fibrillation is characterized by an erratic electrical firing of the heart. In ventricular fibrillation, the large chambers of the heart stop working normally, and instead quiver uncontrollably. The heart may even stop, which is called cardiac arrest.

Arrhythmias contribute to stroke because when the heart beats irregularly, blood does not flow as evenly as it should. Some of the blood may stagnate in place, instead of flowing efficiently. This stagnation of blood flow, which is called stasis, may last for only milliseconds, but that is enough time for the blood to form clots.

The blood clots that are formed can travel from the heart to the carotid arteries or to the brain, interrupting circulation in the brain and causing ischemic strokes. The brain injury of ischemic strokes sometimes results in bleeding in the brain through a process called hemorrhagic transformation. Thus, bleeding in the brain can occur with strokes that are caused by heart disease.

Arrhythmia Diagnosis

Arrhythmias are typically discovered during a routine medical examination. When your healthcare provider listens to your heart with a stethoscope, they are listening to detect whether your heart beats with a regular or irregular rhythm. Arrhythmia diagnosis involves further tests such as electrocardiogram (EKG), echocardiogram, stress test, or Holter monitor to better identify the pattern and the cause of the rhythm problem.

Most arrhythmias are treatable with medication or surgery. If you have an arrhythmia, you might need to take a blood thinner to help prevent a stroke, even if you receive medical treatment for your irregular heartbeat. Treatment for the arrhythmia itself may not be completely effective. Surgery or medication for arrhythmia in conjunction with blood thinners has been found to be more effective at preventing strokes than treatment of arrhythmia without a blood thinner.

Heart Failure

Heart failure and congestive heart failure are the terms commonly used to describe the heart when it is weak and not functioning efficiently. People who have heart failure or congestive heart failure are roughly 2 to 3 times more likely to experience a stroke than people who do not have heart failure.

Heart failure results in a number of symptoms, including fatigue, low energy, and shortness of breath. These symptoms are consequences of the heart’s inefficient blood delivery to the body due to the weakness of the heart muscle. Sometimes, people who have heart failure have a rapid heartbeat, which is the heart's attempt to compensate for the weak pumping action of the heart muscle.

The link between heart failure and stroke is complex and related to a number of factors.

One of the ways that heart failure contributes to stroke is through the body’s physiologic response to the inadequate oxygen supply. The body attempts to compensate for these problems by releasing a number of hormones that make the blood more likely to clot, which can lead to strokes.

Another way that the body attempts to compensate for heart failure is by altering the blood pressure in ways that can lead to stroke. Heart failure may also lead to an irregular or erratic heart rate, which can cause the heart to form blood clots that can travel to the brain.

And yet another reason for the increased risk of stroke associated with heart failure is that the same biological processes that cause heart failure also cause disease of the blood vessels, which leads to blood clot formation and strokes.

Heart Valve Disease

Heart valves are small structures that are located in the chambers of the heart and in the blood vessels of the heart. These valves serve to maintain the proper direction of blood flow as it travels to the heart, within the heart, and out of the heart.

Defective heart valves can lead to a number of serious consequences. Blood may leak or ‘backflow’ in the wrong direction, resulting in blood clots due to stasis. Blood, cholesterol and other materials may stick and form small growths on the valves. These growths can break off and ultimately travel to the brain, blocking small blood vessels. Heart valves may even become infected, sending debris and ‘sticky’ material that can block blood vessels of the brain.

Heart valve problems are typically recognized during a medical appointment when your healthcare provider listens to your heart sounds with a stethoscope. Heart valve defects are characterized by distinctive, abnormal heart sounds. Further examination with diagnostic tests such as an echocardiogram can better identify the specific type of heart valve defect and help with constructing a plan for valve repair, which may include medication or surgery.

Heart Attacks

A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction (death of heart muscle due to lack of blood supply), is usually a painful event characterized by severe shortness of breath and chest pressure. Depending on which part of the heart is damaged during a heart attack, the injury can result in malfunction of the damaged region.

If the heart attack injures one of the areas of the heart that controls heart rhythm, an arrhythmia can occur. If the heart attack damages heart muscle, then the weak heart muscle might result in heart failure. In a major heart attack, there may be a lack of adequate blood supply to the brain at the time of the heart attack. Thus, a person can experience a stroke at the same time as a heart attack.

The long-term stroke risk after a heart attack is one of the well-known adverse effects of this condition. This is why one of the important aspects of post-heart attack care includes addressing stroke prevention, which includes maintaining healthy cholesterol levels and blood pressure in the recommended range.

Heart Infections and Inflammation

Overall, heart infections and inflammatory disease of the heart are not that common. Heart infections increase the chances of having an ischemic stroke or a hemorrhagic stroke.

Endocarditis is a type of inflammation or infection of the heart tissue. Endocarditis may be related to risk factors such as artificial heart valves. Valve disease such as rheumatic heart disease is another risk factor for infective endocarditis. Management of endocarditis requires very close care, and surgical intervention may be necessary.

Inborn Heart Defects

A number of inborn heart defects are associated with an increased chance of having a stroke. Inborn heart conditions are often referred to as congenital heart defects.

There are a variety of congenital heart defects, including heart valve defects and malformations in the structure of the blood vessels in the heart. The most common congenital heart defect is an opening or a 'hole' in the septum, which is the structure that separates the chambers of the heart.

A patent foramen ovale (PFO) is a defect in the region of the septum that separates the right atria of the heart from the left atria. PFO had been considered a significant stroke risk factor for many years, but whether strokes are indeed caused by PFOs is unclear. Currently, people who have a patent foramen ovale are not always advised to have a surgical repair.

Most congenital heart defects are detected during childhood. However, while congenital heart defects increase the chances of having a stroke at a young age, the overall chance of having a stroke at a young age is fairly low.

If you have a congenital heart defect, it is likely that your pediatrician detected it when you were a child or a young adult. It is important that you maintain visits with a cardiologist throughout your life until you are cleared regarding your congenital heart defect.

How Can You Know If You Have Heart Disease?

The signs of heart disease vary depending on the specific heart condition. Some heart conditions produce a sense of fatigue, while some cause palpitations, and yet others lead to exhaustion in association with physical exertion. Heart disease may manifest with dizziness.

While some heart conditions do not cause any symptoms, particularly if they are mild or still in the early stage, your routine physicals are designed to help detect many illnesses, including heart disease. The best thing you can do to find out if you have heart disease is to be observant about any changes in your energy level and to make sure that you schedule your recommended physical examinations.

A Word From Verywell

Heart disease is very common, but that does not mean you should not take it seriously. If you have any symptoms of heart disease, don't delay getting medical attention. The medical care of heart disease has come a long way, and the vast majority of heart problems can be well managed to prevent consequences such as stroke.

Making sure to get routine medical checkups is the best way to ensure that health problems are detected early before they cause significant problems.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Heidi Moawad, MD
Heidi Moawad is a neurologist and expert in the field of brain health and neurological disorders. Dr. Moawad regularly writes and edits health and career content for medical books and publications.