It’s May, which is National Stroke Awareness Month. Because strokes are a serious medical emergency, the health care community often refers to it as a “brain attack,” comparing it in urgency to a heart attack. The statistics from the National Stroke Association vary slightly from those of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), but the bottom line is strokes are a leading cause of death and disability in the United States, and most of them can be prevented.
In its simplest sense, a stroke occurs when the blood flow to an area of the brain is interrupted. As a result, the cells in that area don’t get the necessary oxygen, glucose and other nutrients normally provided by the blood, and the cells begin to whither and die. This cell death is what causes the disability associated with stroke.
There are two primary types of strokes. Blood flow can be blocked by a blood clot, called an ischemic stroke, or interfered with due to bleeding in the brain, called a hemorrhagic stroke. Ischemic strokes are much more common, accounting for about 80 percent of all strokes. Sometimes, blood flow is interrupted very briefly, but the person experiences some stroke-like symptoms. These are called transient ischemic attacks or TIAs.
A big cause of ischemic stroke is atherosclerosis,2 that ugly build-up of fatty plaque deposits on the walls of your arteries. When it builds up in the carotid arteries in your neck, the arteries become narrow and the blood flow to the brain becomes restricted, leading to a TIA or stroke. Hemorrhagic strokes often occur as a result of a ruptured aneurysm (a bulge in a blood vessel) in the brain, but can also result from an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) or from prolonged high blood pressure, the leading risk factor for stroke.
Like many conditions, stroke has both controllable and uncontrollable risk factors. Some of the uncontrollable factors include things like age, gender, race, family history and the presence of arterial abnormalities like aneurysms and AVMs. It’s the controllable risk factors you want to concentrate on, because changing a few behaviors just might help prevent disaster.
The basics of good health apply to stroke prevention, too, so it’s important to manage those controllable risk factors, such as smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. To reduce your risk, quit smoking, maintain a healthy weight, eat a proper diet and avoid excessive alcohol use. If you have high blood pressure, atherosclerosis or high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes or another chronic disorder, make sure you keep your condition well under control.
Before you go, know the signs of a stroke. And remember, a stroke is an emergency. If you notice the signs of a stroke in someone, don’t hesitate. Call 911 right away. According to the NINDS, the symptoms of a stroke are distinct because they happen quickly.4 Signs of a stroke include the sudden onset of:
- Numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Severe headache with no known cause