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Fruit of the month: Bananas

Updated February 1, 2021

Bananas are one of the most popular fruits in the United States, perhaps because they're affordable (about 58 cents per pound, on average) and available year-round.

Among all fruits, bananas are one of best sources of potassium, with about 450 milligrams (mg) per banana. Healthy adults not on certain medications should aim for 4,700 mg of potassium daily, although few Americans meet this goal. A high potassium intake may help reduce high blood pressure and has also been linked to a lower risk of stroke and possibly heart disease.

The major problem of ministrokes

Updated February 1, 2021

A transient ischemic attack is a warning of a potential full stroke. Don't ignore it.

An estimated 795,000 people get a first-time stroke every year, and there is a good chance they were warned. Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), also known as ministrokes, share many of the typical stroke symptoms. Yet they often are mild and brief, which is why they routinely get missed or ignored.

"A TIA is your body sounding a loud alarm that you're at high risk for a full stroke, and you need to listen," says Dr. Erica Camargo Faye, a stroke neurologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Inflammatory foods and sweet drinks raise heart disease risk

Updated February 1, 2021

In the journals

Two recent studies shined a new spotlight on how inflammatory foods and drinks can affect heart disease risk. One study, published Nov. 10, 2020, in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, looked at the impact high- and low-inflammatory diets had among 210,000 people free of heart disease at the beginning of the study. High-inflammatory diets were defined as those with more red, processed, and organ meats; refined carbohydrates; and sweetened drinks. In contrast, anti-inflammatory diets emphasize leafy greens (kale, spinach), dark yellow and orange vegetables (yellow peppers, carrots), whole grains, fruits, tea, coffee, and moderate amounts of red wine.

Participants' eating habits were recorded every four years for up to 32 years. Those who followed a high-inflammatory diet ended up with a 38% higher risk of heart disease and a 28% higher risk of stroke than those who ate a low-inflammatory diet.

Bad habits come in pairs

Updated February 1, 2021

Your partner's flawed health behaviors may be harming your heart.

It's been said that the longer couples stay together the more they look alike. As it turns out, the resemblance may be more than skin-deep. A study published online Oct. 26, 2020, by JAMA Network Open found that couples' health behavior and heart disease risk factors also look alike — for better or worse.

"We know, even from personal experience, that couples share similar behaviors that can affect health, but it was surprising to find the high levels of shared unhealthy behaviors within couples," says the study's lead author, Dov Shiffman, a senior scientific fellow at the medical testing company Quest Diagnostics.

Googling "chest pain" during the COVID-19 pandemic

Updated January 1, 2021

Research we're watching

Google searches for "chest pain" spiked in March and April of 2020 during the initial sharp rise in COVID-19 infections, according to a new study. The findings suggest that people were attempting to self-diagnose heart attacks — and may explain why fewer people sought treatment for heart attacks in hospitals during the pandemic.

The study relied on Google Trends, a tool that monitors search term queries over time. The authors looked at searches for "chest pain" and five control terms — "toothache," "abdominal pain," "knee pain," "heart attack," and "stroke" — from January 2017 through May 2020. Searches for chest pain (a common symptom of heart attack but not COVID-19) spiked in states with high rates of COVID-19 infection (New York, New Jersey, and Illinois), while searches for other terms stayed steady.

Get FITT to better fight heart disease

Updated January 1, 2021

If you've been diagnosed with heart disease, the FITT approach can reduce your risk for heart attack and stroke.

About half of all Americans have at least one of the key risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and excess weight.

You can address those risks with a heart-healthy diet and medications to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. But perhaps the biggest boost you can give your heart is regular aerobic exercise.

Artificially sweetened drinks: No heart health advantage?

Updated January 1, 2021

Research we're watching

Think you're doing your heart a favor by drinking diet instead of regular soda? That may be wishful thinking, according to a research letter published Nov. 3, 2020, in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Researchers studied nearly 105,000 people who filled out three 24-hour dietary recall surveys every six months. During a 10-year follow-up, researchers tracked the participants' cardiovascular health.

Can a smart watch diagnose a heart attack?

Updated December 1, 2020

This technology isn't ready for prime time yet. But detecting various heart problems with a smart watch could become a reality within the decade.

To diagnose a heart attack, doctors look for a distinctive pattern on a tracing of the heart's electrical activity, using a test known as a 12-lead electrocardiogram, or ECG. Now, a small study suggests that ECG readings taken with a smart watch may be just as accurate as a traditional ECG done in a medical setting.

While these new findings show potential, the real-world applicability is still years away. "This study is more a proof-of-principle rather than something that's clinically useful," says Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Peter Libby, a cardiologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Telemonitoring tied to fewer heart attacks, lower medical costs

Updated December 1, 2020

News briefs

If your doctor or pharmacist offers a service to monitor blood pressure measurements you send from home (called telemonitoring), consider taking advantage of it. Past research has shown that telemonitoring — often paid for by Medicare — may help you reduce your blood pressure. And a study published online Aug. 31, 2020, by Hypertension suggests telemonitoring is also associated with a long-term reduction in heart attacks, strokes, and medical costs. The recent study is a follow-up to a randomized controlled trial from 2013 that divided 450 people into two groups: those who received routine primary care, and those who received a year of telemonitoring services with a pharmacist who helped manage their treatment. People in the telemonitoring group had lower blood pressure for up to two years afterward, compared with people who received routine care. In the recently published follow-up, which followed the same participants for five years, researchers found there were about half as many heart attacks, strokes, and hospitalizations in the telemonitoring group as there were in the group that received routine care. Because there were fewer cardiovascular problems, people in the telemonitoring group also saved an estimated $1,900 each in medical costs.

When you take these popular pain relievers, proceed with caution

Updated December 1, 2020

Over-the-counter and prescription drugs known as NSAIDs pose a risk to the cardiovascular system.

Many people stock pain relievers in their medicine cabinets for headaches or strained muscles. Among the most common are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include the over-the-counter pills ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), as well many prescription drugs (see "Commonly used NSAIDs").

As their name indicates, NSAIDs help to reduce inflammation. For this reason, they may be more effective than other pain relievers — namely acetaminophen (Tylenol) — for certain conditions, such as arthritis. But because NSAIDs are available without a prescription, people often assume these drugs are completely safe. And they may overlook the warning that appears on ibuprofen and naproxen labels, which reads "Heart attack and stroke warning: NSAIDs, except aspirin, increase the risk of heart attack, heart failure, and stroke. These can be fatal. The risk is higher if you use more than directed or for longer than directed." (Although technically an NSAID, aspirin is a unique case; see "Aspirin advice.")

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