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How to Prevent a Stroke

Martin Schumacher
March 12, 2012

Learn the stroke risk factors and warning signs to help you or someone you care for

Most people know that strokes are very dangerous, but fewer people seem to know that many strokes are also preventable. With a better understanding of the risk factors, the common warning signs, and how to respond when a stroke may be occurring, you will be in a much better position to help prevent a stroke.

Strokes are the leading cause of disability in this country and the third leading cause of death. For those people who have a major stroke, approximately 85% survive; of these approximately half are left disabled. However, as author of How to Prevent Your Stroke, Dr. J. David Spence of the Stroke Prevention and Atherosclerosis Research Centre at the Robarts Research Institute, says, "at least half of first strokes are preventable and 80-90% of recurrent strokes are preventable."

What Is a Stroke?

A stroke (or "brain attack" as it is sometimes called) is, according to Dr. Spence, "a sudden onset of damage to part of the brain" due either to a hemorrhage or a blocked artery. A hemorrhage involves "blood leaking into the brain from a burst artery," which is brought on usually because of "high blood pressure or from a weakened part of the artery (like a bulge in a tire) called an aneurysm." A blocked artery causes "a loss of blood supply to part of the brain (called an ischemic stroke), which is usually caused by a blood clot that breaks off either from an artery lower down (such as the carotid artery) or from the heart." When either of these things happen brain cells begin to die and brain damage occurs.

When brain cells die, certain functions controlled by that area of the brain - including movement, speech, and memory - are diminished or lost. Depending on where the stroke occurs and how much damage is done will determine how a particular stroke victim is affected. Some people recover completely from strokes, but they are in the minority; more than two-thirds of stroke survivors will have some type of ongoing disability.

People also have small, brief strokes that, as Dr. Spence explains, "clear up completely within 24 hours and do not leave any sign of damage on a CT or MRI scan. These strokes are called a transient ischemic attack (or TIA). If symptoms last more than 24 hours or there are signs of damage (infarction) on the imaging, it is called a stroke."

Risk Factors

The research is very clear, says Dr. Spence, as to what the major risk factors for strokes are:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Poor diet and high cholesterol
  • Lack of exercise
  • Excess alcohol consumption
  • Diabetes
  • High waist/hip ratio
  • Heart problems (such as atrial fibrillation)
  • Stress and/or depression

Stroke Warning Signs

The National Stroke Association offers a simple way to remember the key warning signs of a stroke. They've come up with the acronym "FAST" to help you keep in mind these critical stroke warning signs:

F = Face: First, ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?

A = Arms: Next, ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm not stay up, but drifts downward?

S = Speech: Give the person a simple phrase to repeat. Is their speech slurred or odd in any way?

T = Time: The faster you act the better chance the victim has to recover. If you observe any of these warning signs, even if you're not sure, call 9-1-1 immediately.

While this acronym tool is helpful, it doesn't provide the complete picture, explains Dr. Spence: "It all depends what part of the brain is affected. If a TIA or stroke occurs in the front part of the brain, typical symptoms would be weakness on one side and/or numbness on one side, with or without trouble with speech. If the TIA or stroke occurs in the back part of the brain, it could be with visual symptoms (loss of vision on one side or both sides, flashing lights, or other visual symptoms), vertigo (a turning sensation), loss of balance, staggering, double vision, thickening of speech, trouble swallowing, clumsiness on one side."

It's also important to note, adds Dr. Spence, that, unlike with heart attacks, the warning signs for strokes for women and men are the same.

Stroke Prevention

As stated above, there are specific things you can do to greatly lessen your chance of a stroke. If you review the "risk factors" above, you can quickly guess what those are. Here, in order of importance, Dr. Spence lists his top three steps for preventing a future stroke:

  • Quit smoking. Studies show that smoking increases your risk factor by approximately six times.
  • Change your diet. Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet from Crete will greatly lessen your risk. This diet includes a high intake of beneficial oils (such as olive oil and canola), whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lentils and beans, a low intake of meat (including chicken and fish), and no egg yolks. Regular exercise will also help.
  • Control your blood pressure. If your blood pressure is difficult to control, it may be very important to have two blood tests done - plasma renin and aldosterone - to identify the right treatment for you. This is particularly important for African-Americans, who are more likely to have two special causes of hypertension.

Unlike with many illnesses and conditions, strokes, in many cases, can be prevented. If you and your loved ones make the effort to educate yourselves and, more importantly, make the necessary changes in your life to lessen your risk, the benefits over time can be immeasurable.

* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan. Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.

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