Stroke is one of the most life-threatening medical emergencies in the United States. Stroke is a leading killer of Americans, causing a death every 4 minutes according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.) A devastating condition, stroke can cause brain cells to be damaged or die within a matter of minutes. As a result, those who do survive a stroke often face cognitive and physical challenges that could last for years. With early medical intervention, a stroke’s devastation can be minimized and lives can be saved so it is important to know the signs of stroke and how to reduce the risk of having one.
What is stroke?
A stroke occurs when a clot blocks the blood supply to the brain or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. Blood brings oxygen and nutrients to the brain cells. If blood can’t flow to a part of the brain, cells that do not receive enough oxygen suffer and eventually die. If brain cells are without oxygen for only a short time, they can sometimes recover. However, brain cells that die can never recover. There are two major types of stroke. The most common kind, ischemic, is caused by a blood clot or the narrowing of a blood vessel leading to the brain. According to the National Institute on Aging, there are three common causes for ischemic strokes:
- Formation of a clot within a blood vessel of the brain or neck, called thrombosis
- Movement of a clot from another part of the body, such as from the heart to the neck or brain, called an embolism
- Severe narrowing of an artery (stenosis) in or leading to the brain, due to fatty deposits lining the blood vessel walls
Hemorrhagic stroke is caused by a broken blood vessel, which leads to bleeding in the brain. The break in the blood vessel interrupts the flow of blood, causing oxygen and nutrients to not reach brain cells. A third type of stroke is transient ischemic attack or TIA. Commonly known as a mini-stroke, the symptoms occur over a short period of time and may go away afterward. However, if untreated, TIA can be followed by a more serious stroke.
Know the signs
When someone is having a stroke, minutes make a difference. It’s important to know the signs and act quickly to reduce the chances of death or disability. Call 911, if you experience common stroke symptoms, including:
- Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg—especially on one side of the body
- Sudden confusion or trouble speaking or understanding conversation
- Sudden problems seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden dizziness, loss of balance or coordination and/or trouble walking
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause
- Double vision
- Nausea or vomiting
If you believe someone may be having a stroke, the National Stroke Association recommends the acronym F.A.S.T. as an easy method to remember and recognize the signs of stroke.
Face. Observe the person’s face and check to see if one side is drooping.
Arms. If the person tries to raise both arms, does one drift downward?
Speech. When the person speaks, does their speech make sense? Do they slur their words?
Time. If you notice any of these symptoms, call 911 right away.
What’s your risk?
Strokes can occur at any age, however, older people are at higher risk. According to research published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2011, the risk of having a stroke doubles with each decade after the age of 45. In fact, the research found that more than 70 percent of all strokes occur above the age of 65. In addition to age, a number of health conditions and lifestyle habits can put a person at increased risk for stroke. According to the CDC, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity and diabetes are leading causes of stroke. Fortunately, these risk factors can be controlled and proper management can even significantly reduce the likelihood of stroke. The following tips can help keep risk factors for stroke in check:
- Control blood pressure
- Work to attain and maintain healthy cholesterol numbers
- Quit smoking
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Manage diabetes
- Eat a healthy and balanced diet
- Exercise regularly
To learn more about what you can do to reduce the chance of suffering a stroke, consult your physician.