Preventing a Second Heart Attack or Stroke

January 26, 2024

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One of the most important tasks for researchers is to make sure the experiment we are running is accurately assessing the intended variable. Because of this, each study has specific inclusion and exclusion criteria, which determine who can qualify to participate. An example would be needing a diagnosis of severe asthma for a study testing a new asthma medication. Usually, criteria include age, relevant medical diagnoses or histories, and exclude major health events such as cancer, heart attack, or stroke. Recently (as of the writing of this article), however, we have seen a notable uptick in the number of cardiovascular studies that allow or even require a previous heart attack or stroke as an inclusion criterion. This is because there are several medications or devices being studied that hope to lower the recurrence of these events.

Heart attack and stroke are often two sides of the same coin. In both cases, blood flow to part of the organ is lowered or stopped, and the affected tissue is damaged or dies. You might be familiar with the term Major Adverse Cardiovascular Event (MACE), which encompasses various cardiovascular issues, including heart attack and stroke. Most people survive their first incident, but 20-25% of people have more than one. According to the American Heart Association, about 1 in 5 people who have had a heart attack will suffer from (or experience) a second one within five years. Each heart attack or stroke comes with a chance of lowered quality of life, disability, or death, so preventing further events is critical.

One of the biggest problems with preventing a second heart attack or stroke is the myriad of causes of these conditions. Any prolonged insult to the cardiovascular system can lead to a heart attack or stroke. The risks, then, include a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, obesity or excess weight (especially around the midsection), high blood pressure, high cholesterol, uncontrolled diabetes, smoking, stress, alcohol, and drugs. The solutions to these disparate causes can also spread far and wide. For this reason, the two most important ways to reduce the risk of a second heart attack or stroke are to talk to a medical professional and take prescribed medications.

A medical professional can look at the underlying condition of individuals and determine which factors likely had the biggest impact. They may recommend cardiac rehabilitation and specific medications to address underlying conditions and prevent recurrence. Targeting specific, relevant causes with medications, such as anticoagulants like warfarin, antiplatelets like aspirin, and cholesterol-lowering medications like statins, can reduce the risk of resurgence by up to 70%! Doctors may also recommend medications to help with diabetes or blood pressure and/or surgical procedures to fix structural problems with the cardiovascular system. Managing the risk factors that caused the first heart attack or stroke can reduce the likelihood of a second (or third). On top of this, changes to lifestyle and diet can have a significant impact, lowering the chance of a second event by almost a third. Add a reduction in smoking, alcohol, and drugs for an even greater effect.

Beyond standard medical advice, two additional interventions may help. The first is support. Family, friends, and others who have experienced heart attacks and strokes can help make the recovery process more bearable and lower anxiety and stress (which are risk factors in themselves!). Finally, clinical trials may help. Indeed, the inclusion of previous heart attacks or strokes in clinical research inclusion criteria indicates an increased recognition that indirect influence can induce repeated injury to the heart and brain. In short, research studies are looking at new ways to lower the incidence of a second heart attack or stroke by targeting underlying conditions with new medications and new methods of treatment. This is invariably a great idea. Only YOU (and your doctor (and maybe a clinical research coordinator)) can prevent secondary strokes and heart attacks.

At the time of this writing, ENCORE Research Sites have several studies for people who have had a previous heart attack or stroke. Call your local office to explore research options for you.

Staff Writer / Editor Benton Lowey-Ball, BS, BFA

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