A stroke happens when blood flow to an area of the brain is blocked or significantly reduced. Blood supplies oxygen and nutrients to brain cells and when blood flow is interrupted brain cells begin to die. This process can happen in a matter of minutes. If you think someone is having a stroke prompt action is needed to help minimize brain damage.
Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Approximately 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke each year and there are approximately 160,000 stroke-related deaths. Fortunately, there are effective treatments for stroke and early recognition and intervention can help prevent long-term disability.
The sudden onset of new neurologic symptoms is concerning for a stroke. If you think you or someone you are with is having a stroke, be sure to note the time the symptoms started. Stroke treatment options may depend on how long symptoms have been present.
Stroke symptoms may include:
The National Stroke Association recommends that people “think F.A.S.T.” to help identify a person who may be having a stroke.
F-Face Drooping. Is there a facial droop or does one side of the face feel numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the smile uneven?
A-Arm Weakness. Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Can both arms be raised to the same level? Does one arm drift down?
S-Speech Difficulty. Is the speech slurred? Does the person seem confused or unable to understand what you are saying?
T-Time to act. If you see any signs of a stroke. Call 911 immediately.
If you suspect that you or someone you are with is having a stroke, it is a medical emergency. Call 911 immediately. Do not wait to see if the symptoms go away on their own. Getting to the hospital as quickly as possible is important because time equals brain cells.
If a person is having a stroke, the longer that the brain tissue is without oxygen the more damage can be done. Do not drive the person to the hospital or allow the person to drive themselves. An ambulance crew can begin providing sometimes life-saving treatments on the way to the hospital.
There are two main types of stroke: ischemic and hemorrhagic. An ischemic stroke is caused by a blocked artery and a hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel bursts or becomes leaky. A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is caused by a temporary disruption in blood flow to the brain and does not cause lasting symptoms.
Ischemic strokes are the most common kind of stroke and account for approximately 80% of all strokes. An ischemic stroke occurs when a part of the brain does not get adequate blood supply because an artery is blocked.
The artery can be blocked by blood clots or other debris that can be carried to the brain via the bloodstream. Another cause of blocked arteries is fatty build-up in the arteries. Just like someone can develop fatty build-up in the arteries that feed the heart muscle and have a heart attack, a person can develop fatty build-up in the arteries that feed the brain and have a ‘brain attack’ (i.e. a stroke).
The most common risk factors for ischemic stroke are:
Hemorrhagic strokes are less common. This type of stroke happens when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures or leaks and there is bleeding into the brain or the area surrounding the brain. A brain hemorrhage can happen for a number of reasons including:
A TIA can have the same symptoms as a stroke but the symptoms only last for a few minutes and go away on their own without medical treatment. Even though the symptoms go away it is still important to seek emergency care because it is not possible to tell the difference between a TIA and a stroke based on symptoms. Also, sometimes a TIA is like a warning bell before you have an actual stroke.
There are a number of factors that increase your risk of stroke. Some stroke risk factors can be influenced by healthy habits and preventing or treating underlying health conditions including:
There are other warning sign that are associated with a higher risk for stroke which is not modifiable. Even though you cannot do anything about these risk factors understanding things that you cannot control is important. Non-modifiable stroke risk factors include:
Healthy lifestyle changes, knowing your personal stroke risk factors, and making sure underlying health conditions are adequately treated can all lower your risk of stroke.
A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, skinless fish, and poultry has the vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber and other nutrients the body needs to stay healthy. Try to eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Limit or eliminate saturated fat, trans fat, red meat, sweet treats and sugar-sweetened drinks.
If you eat more calories than you burn each day, you will gain weight. Obesity increases the risk of stroke. Being overweight or obese contributes to diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and high cholesterol. Each of these health conditions increases stroke risk.
Smoking increases the risk of stroke. For example, a person who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day is 6 times more likely to have a stroke compared to a person who does not smoke. People who are exposed to secondhand smoke also have an increased risk of stroke. Talk to your healthcare provider if you smoke and are interested in quitting. Smoking cessation aids like nicotine replacement products (i.e. gum, patch, spray) and certain medications are helpful for many people.
High blood pressure increases the risk of stroke and is called the silent killer because most people do not have any symptoms associated with high blood pressure until it is dangerously high. There are a number of effective medications to help control high blood pressure. Healthy lifestyle habits like eating a healthy diet, limiting salt intake, regular exercise, not smoking and maintaining healthy body weight all help lower blood pressure.
Limit alcohol intake to 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. Excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure and may interact with medications you are taking.
Elevated levels of blood cholesterol cause fatty deposits to build up in the blood vessels and increases the risk of stroke. Dietary fat, especially saturated fat and trans fats, contributes to high levels of blood cholesterol. Examples of food that is high in saturated fat includes egg yolks, bacon, full-fat dairy products, and red meat.
Trans fats are even worse for your health than saturated fat. They are found in many processed foods like store-bought cakes, piecrust, cookies, crackers, doughnuts, and frozen pizzas. Some people can control their cholesterol by eating a healthy diet that is low in saturated and trans fats.
Trans fats are the worst kind of dietary fat for If dietary changes along not enough to lower your blood cholesterol to acceptable levels, your health care provider may recommend a cholesterol-lowering medication.
Frequent, moderate-intensity exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Physical inactivity contributes to high blood pressure and makes maintaining a healthy weight more difficult.
Untreated sleep apnea increases the risk of stroke. Talk to your doctor and get tested if you think you might have sleep apnea.
You may be able to control your blood sugar through diet, exercise, and weight loss. If these lifestyle changes are not enough, your doctor may recommend medication to control diabetes.