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May is National Stroke Awareness Month

Strokes Don’t Discriminate: No Matter Your Age, Education and Awareness are Vital

A stroke can happen to anyone at any time—at any age. During National Stroke Awareness Month healthcare professionals are urging Americans to learn more about the impact of stroke, learn stroke symptoms and what to do if you spot them, and to access available resources for survivors and caregivers.

Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States and a leading cause of severe disability. It is estimated that one person in this country dies from stroke approximately every four minutes.

While a stroke is preventable and largely treatable, a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report notes the age-adjusted death rate for stroke increased from 36.5 deaths per 100,000 persons in the U.S. in 2014 to 37.6 in 2015. Approximately 60 percent of those who die from stroke are women—and women tend to have worse functional outcomes after experiencing a stroke.

Nearly three-quarters of all strokes occur in people over the age of 65 and the risk of having a stroke more than doubles each decade after the age of 55 according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

What Is a Stroke?

As explained by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a stroke occurs if the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a portion of the brain is blocked. Without oxygen, brain cells begin to die after a few minutes. Sudden bleeding in the brain can also cause a stroke if it damages brain cells. A stroke is a serious medical condition that requires emergency care. It can cause lasting brain damage, long-term disability, or even death.

The two main types of stroke are ischemic, the most common type of stroke, and hemorrhagic. An ischemic stroke takes place when an artery that supplies blood to the brain is blocked. Blood clots often cause the blockages that lead to ischemic strokes.

A hemorrhagic stroke occurs if an artery in the brain leaks blood or breaks open. The pressure from the leaked blood damages brain cells. High blood pressure and aneurysms are examples of conditions that can cause this type of stroke.

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is similar to a stroke and is actually called a “mini-stroke.” A TIA occurs if blood flow to a portion of the brain is blocked only for a short time. Thus, damage to the brain isn’t permanent. Although TIAs are not full-blown strokes, they greatly increase the risk of having a stroke.

Who’s at Risk?

Anyone can have a stroke at any age, but certain things can increase your chances of having a stroke. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to have a stroke. You can treat or control some of these risk factors, such as high blood pressure and smoking, but other risk factors, such as age and gender, cannot be controlled.

As listed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, major risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure: High blood pressure is the main risk factor for stroke. Blood pressure is considered high if it stays at or above 140/90 mmHg over time.
  • Diabetes: Diabetes is a disease in which the blood sugar level is high because the body doesn’t make enough insulin or doesn’t use its insulin properly.
  • Heart diseases: Coronary heart disease, cardiomyopathy, heart failure, and atrial fibrillation can all cause blood clots that can lead to a stroke.
  • Smoking: Smoking damages blood vessels and raises blood pressure. Smoking may also reduce the amount of oxygen that reaches your body’s tissues.
  • Age and gender: Your risk of stroke increases as you get older. At younger ages, men are more likely than women to have strokes. However, women are more likely to die from strokes.
  • Race and ethnicity: Strokes occur more often in African American, Alaska Native, and American Indian adults than in white, Hispanic, or Asian American adults.
  • Personal or family history of stroke or TIA: If you’ve had a stroke, you’re at higher risk for another. Your risk of having a repeat stroke is the highest right after a stroke. A TIA also increases your risk of having a stroke, as does having a family history of stroke.
  • Brain aneurysms or arteriovenous malformations (AVMs): Aneurysms are balloon-like bulges in an artery that can stretch and burst. AVMs are tangles of faulty arteries and veins that can break open within the brain. AVMs may be present at birth, but often aren’t diagnosed until they rupture.

Other, controllable, risk factors, are:

  • Alcohol and illegal drug use, including cocaine, amphetamines, and other drugs.
  • Certain medical conditions, such as sickle cell disease, vasculitis, and bleeding disorders.
  • A lack of physical activity.
  • Being overweight.
  • Stress and depression.
  • Unhealthy cholesterol levels.
  • An unhealthy diet.

The use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), but not aspirin, may increase the risk of heart attack or stroke, particularly in those who’ve had a heart attack or cardiac bypass surgery. The risk may increase the longer NSAIDs such as ibuprofen and naproxen are used.

Do You Know the Signs?

The signs and symptoms of a stroke often develop quickly, but can also take hours or even days to develop. The type of symptoms depends on the type of stroke and the area of the brain that’s affected. How long symptoms last and how severe they will vary from person to person.

Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Sudden weakness;
  • Paralysis or numbness of the face, arms, or legs, especially on one side of the body;
  • Confusion;
  • Trouble speaking or understanding speech;
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes;
  • Problems breathing;
  • Dizziness, trouble walking, loss of balance or coordination, and unexplained falls;
  • Loss of consciousness; and
  • Sudden and severe headache.

A TIA has the same signs and symptoms as a stroke. However, TIA symptoms usually last less than one to two hours (although they may last up to 24 hours). At first, it may not be possible to tell whether someone is having a TIA or stroke, but that doesn’t matter—ALL stroke-like symptoms require medical care.

Do not drive to the hospital or let someone else drive you—call 9-1-1 immediately so that medical personnel can begin treatment on the way to the hospital. Call an ambulance so that medical personnel can begin life-saving treatment on the way to the emergency room. Remember: During a stroke, every minute counts.

“Many people think of strokes as a disease of the elderly, but it can happen to anyone at any time, even very young people,” said Jeffrey L. Saver, M.D., professor of Neurology and director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center at University of California Los Angeles. “When someone recognizes a stroke and quickly calls 9-1-1, the person has a greater chance of getting to an appropriate hospital quickly and being assessed for a clot-busting drug or a medical clot-removal device that may save their brain tissue and prevent long-term disability.”

How Can You Prevent a Stroke?

Taking action to control risk factors can help prevent or delay a stroke. The American Stroke Association recommends the following changes can help prevent your first stroke or help prevent another one.

  • Be physically active. Physical activity can improve your fitness level and health. Talk to your doctor about what types and amounts of activity are safe for you.
  • Don’t smoke. If you smoke or use tobacco, quit. Smoking can damage and tighten blood vessels and raise your risk of stroke. Talk with your doctor about programs and products available to help you quit.
  • Aim for a healthy weight. If you’re overweight or obese, work with your doctor to create a reasonable weight loss plan. Controlling your weight helps you control risk factors for stroke.
  • Control your blood pressure. Damage to your blood vessels from undetected or uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and other serious health threats.
  • Get some sleep. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Try your best to get a good seven to eight hours of sack time every night.
  • Make heart-healthy eating choices. Foods like fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grains can lower your risk for stroke and heart disease.
  • Manage stress. Higher levels of stress are associated with significantly increased risk of stroke or TIA in middle-age and older adults, according to the American Heart Association journal Stroke. Ask your doctor how you can lower your stress levels.

If you or a family member has had a stroke, be sure to tell your doctor. By knowing your family history, your doctor may be able to help you lower your risk factors and delay or even prevent a stroke. If you’ve had a TIA, don’t ignore it. TIAs are warnings and it’s important for your doctor to find the cause of the TIA so you can take steps to prevent a stroke.

The doctors and staff at CCHC Neurology focus on disorders of the brain, spinal cord, muscles, and peripheral nerves—including the diagnoses and treatment of stroke. For more information, or to schedule an appointment, call (252) 637-7860 or visit www.cchchealthcare.com.

(Sources: National Stroke Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Institutes of Health; American Stroke Association; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.)