Heart disease and stroke affect millions of Canadians each year. One person in Canada dies every five minutes from heart conditions, stroke, or vascular cognitive impairment.1 An understanding of risk factors and prevention can drastically reduce or manage heart disease and stroke; below are the most common.

Unhealthy diet

Consuming an unhealthy diet can increase your chances of developing heart disease and stroke. Sugar, sodium, saturated fats and trans fats are some of the main culprits that lead to risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.2

Butter, margarine, red meat and processed meats such as pepperoni and bacon are foods high in saturated and trans fats. Canned meats and processed foods such as canned soups, microwavable meals, and savoury snacks are also very high in sodium, resulting in high blood pressure.2

Both saturated and trans fats increase LDL, a type of protein responsible for carrying cholesterol in our bodies. Too much cholesterol can cause plaque buildup in our arteries, reducing blood and oxygen flow, particularly in the carotid artery and the coronary arteries. The carotid artery is responsible for the flow of oxygen and blood to the brain. Plaque buildup from high cholesterol can reduce blood and oxygen flow, which can result in a stroke. Similarly, plaque buildup in the coronary arteries from high cholesterol reduces blood flow to the heart, resulting in a heart attack.2

Lack of physical activity

Physical inactivity can significantly increase the risk of heart disease and stroke and contribute to diabetes and obesity. 85% of Canadians do not meet the weekly recommended amount of physical activity.4 As with other muscles in our body, our heart needs exercise to remain well-conditioned. When we do not exercise, our heart becomes deconditioned, which decreases its functionality. This inactivity can lead to plaque buildup in our arteries which can lead to stroke and heart disease.5


Stress is a common factor of life that we all experience. Unfortunately, when we continuously experience stress, a hormone called cortisol gets released. When our body produces too much cortisol, our cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure can increase. All of these are risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Another problem with stress is the common behavioural coping mechanisms that many people use. Many people turn to smoking, drinking, or unhealthy food consumption, which in turn can increase their risks further.6


Smoking and the use of tobacco have been linked to adverse health outcomes. The use of tobacco and smoking causes the heart to work harder and can change the chemistry of one’s blood. Chemicals from cigarettes enter the bloodstream and cause the blood to thicken, making it more difficult to pass through the arteries. It also causes an increase in cholesterol, plaque buildup, and a decrease in oxygen in the blood supply, all of which can lead to blood clotting, heart attack, and stroke.3

Reduce your risks

Fortunately, many behavioural and lifestyle changes can be adopted to reduce and manage heart disease and stroke risks significantly.

Pick the healthier option

  • Consume a diet full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; try to have half of a plate full of fruits and vegetables while splitting the rest of the plate between healthy carbs (brown rice) and lean protein (chicken breast)
  • Skip the processed meats and foods; try to prepare all your food at home so you can control what goes inside of your food; choose lean meats and fish instead of meats such as salami or bacon.2

Find time to exercise and destress

  • Physical activity is a great way to maintain good health and reduce stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol; our body also produces endorphins when we exercise, which are natural mood-boosting chemicals
  • 5 hours of exercise is recommended every week—less than 10% of what the average Canadian spends watching television
  • You don’t have to join a gym or be a professional athlete; walk for at least 10 minutes on your lunch break or in the morning with your pet; be aware of your schedule and plan an exercise routine that works best for you

Stop smoking

  • When trying to quit smoking, become aware of the physical and mental challenges that you will face
  • Write down all the obstacles you will face and develop a plan to manage, address and cope with these challenges
  • Ask for help; let the people in your life know you are planning to quit and how they can help you
  • For more resources and quit plans, visit myquit.ca and smokefree.gov

For more resources on heart disease and stroke please visit heartandstroke.ca.

  1. Connected by the Numbers. (2020). Heart & Stroke. Retrieved from https://www.heartandstroke.ca/articles/connected-by-the-numbers#:~:text=Prevalence,stroke%20or%20vascular%20cognitive%20impairment.
  2. Diet and Heart Disease Risk. (2020, August). Victoria State Government. Retrieved from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/heart-disease-and-food
  3. How Smoking Affects the Heart. (2020, May 4). U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/health-information/how-smoking-affects-heart-health
  4. Physical Activity, Heart Disease and Stroke. (2011, August 31). Heart & Stroke. Retrieved from https://www.heartandstroke.ca/-/media/pdf-files/canada/2017-position-statements/physicalactivity-ps-eng.ashx?la=en&hash=F643664372EAE482E864F0503FE387FE20C497AA
  5. Physical Inactivity. (n.d.). Physical Inactivity. British Heart Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/risk-factors/physical-inactivity#:~:text=How%20does%20physical%20inactivity%20increase,lead%20to%20a%20heart%20attack.
  6. Stress Basics. (2020). Heart & Stroke. Retrieved from https://www.heartandstroke.ca/healthy-living/reduce-stress/stress-basics#:~:text=Stress%20can%20cause%20the%20heart,a%20heart%20attack%20or%20stroke.