Heart Attacks and the Brain

How does the brain fare after a heart attack?

Posted Oct 10, 2019

Bernie Sanders is a brilliant man.  Just because you age, that does not mean you lose your mental capacity.  But, as witnessed by his recent heart attack, time alone will age your circulation.

No one is immune from aging.  Even Olympic athletes age.  You don't know your health on the inside until you look.  Vascular disease is a silent killer, but it is not invisible.  Knowing our health on the inside gives us the facts, and allows us to make choices about how to navigate our lives.

A heart attack is damage to the heart from interrupted blood flow to the heart.  A stroke is damage to the brain from interrupted (or inadequate) blood flow to the brain.  Just because you have had a heart attack doesn't mean there is anything wrong with your brain.  But vascular disease is never just located in a single place.  If you have aging arteries in one place, you have aging arteries everywhere.  That means if you do not want to have brain damage from a stroke, you must actively prevent a stroke. 

You Can Prevent a Stroke

A heart attack happens when plaque begins to grow in the coronary arteries, which are the arteries that feed the heart itself.  Fundamentally, plaque growth is the result of natural aging.  It is an inflammatory, or healing, response to the trauma of the 100,000 heart beats we have every day.  Plaque is a natural process, not a disease.  We accelerate plaque growth with the known cardiac risk factors: metabolic mismatch (diabetes/insulin resistance, higher cholesterol), higher blood pressure (also age related), and smoking.  Lifestyle choices certainly help, but no matter how well you eat, no matter how much you exercise, no matter how thin you are:  You will still have vascular aging on the inside.  The question is: How much, and is it threatening.

Additionally, anyone who has had a heart attack is more likely to develop irregular heart beats, or atrial fibrillation, as they age.  The irregular heart beats matter because blood will not flow smoothly through the heart, and then clots can form.  Blood clots that form inside the heart can travel to the brain, leading to strokes, brain damage and vascular dementia.

Mostly, this can be prevented, but you must take an active role and work with your doctor.

So, just because you've had a heart attack doesn't mean there is anything wrong with your brain.  Aging always effects circulation (the heart and blood vessels), but if we are proactive, we don't have to let that effect the brain.  A healthy brain needs a healthy heart.  Having had a stent in an artery doesn't mean your heart is significantly damaged, but it does mean that you have to be diligent to make sure that you are getting enough blood to the brain.

Medicare is very good at covering the diagnostic tests necessary to answer the questions:  What is the health of my heart?  What is the health of my arteries?  What are my heart's rhythms?  And, is it time to do something?

So, before you face heart damage or brain damage, ask your doctors those questions.