Stroke Awareness Can Save Lives

Following the release of new research indicating that more strokes occur during the winter months, that the public’s knowledge of warning signs is low, and that people aren’t calling for help soon enough when symptoms appear, physicians of the Mass. Medical Society (MMS) are urging people to learn more about strokes, their symptoms, and what steps to take when they think someone might be suffering a stroke.

Stroke is the fourth-leading cause of death in the U.S., trailing only heart disease, cancer, and respiratory illnesses, and is the number-one cause of adult disability. Nearly 800,000 people suffer a stroke each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s an average of one person every 40 seconds.

The MMS points out that many strokes can be prevented, and for those that do occur, knowing what to do when someone is stricken can reduce the risk of permanent damage. To increase awareness and help educate patients, the society has issued a basic Q&A on the topic, with information from the National Stroke Assoc., the American Stroke Assoc., and the CDC.

• What is a stroke? A stroke is essentially an attack on the brain, caused by interrupted blood flow. There are two kinds of strokes. An ischemic stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is blocked by blood clots or plaque build-up; a hemorrhagic stroke happens when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. About 85{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of strokes are ischemic. In both cases, brain cells begin to die, and permanent damage may result.

• Who gets strokes? Strokes can happen at any age, but three-quarters strike people over 65. About 60{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of deaths from strokes occur in females, about 40{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} in males. The risk of stroke varies with race and ethnicity, with African-Americans and Hispanic Americans more susceptible than whites.

• What are the risk factors for stroke? High blood pressure, smoking, and a high level of bad (LDL) cholesterol that causes plaque build-up in blood vessels pose the biggest risks. Other factors include diabetes, heart disease, overweight and obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity, and excessive use of alcohol. Atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat) is also a risk. In young people, illicit drugs like cocaine are a common cause of stroke. Sickle-cell disease, family history of stroke, and migraine headaches may also raise the risk.

• How can the risk of stroke be reduced? Controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, avoiding tobacco, and getting regular medical checkups are key steps. Also, avoid drinking alcohol to excess. People with heart disease, diabetes, atrial fibrillation, or circulation problems should work with their doctors to control these conditions. Above all, make healthy lifestyle choices by exercising regularly and eating a good diet (by limiting fat and salt and adding fruits, vegetables, and whole grains).

• What are signs of a stroke? They include the sudden onset of weakness or numbness of the face, arms, or legs, especially on one side; trouble speaking or understanding; trouble seeing in one or both eyes; difficulty walking, dizziness, or loss of balance; and severe headache with no known cause.

• What are the possible effects of a stroke? A stroke can cause paralysis, speech problems, loss of sensation, difficulties with thinking and memory, coma, and even death. Recovery can be long and is often incomplete, creating a great burden on loved ones as well as patients.

• What should people do if they suspect someone is having a stroke? Act F-A-ST, urges the National Stroke Assoc. F, for face: ask the person to smile to see if one side of the face droops; A, for arms: ask the person to raise both arms and watch for downward movement; S, for speech: ask the person to repeat a simple sentence and listen for slurring, or inability to understand or produce words; T, for time: call 911 immediately! Time is brain tissue lost or saved, as brain cells begin to die when a stroke occurs.

• How fast should someone act? As quickly as possible. Today, stroke victims can benefit from new medications previously unavailable. Drugs such as tPA can stop some strokes in progress, saving lives and reducing the potential for disability. But these drugs must be given quickly, within just a few hours, after symptoms first appear. So get help right away.

• Where can I learn more? Visit the National Stroke Assoc. (www.stroke.org), the American Stroke Assoc. (www.strokeassociation.org), or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov/stroke).

This article is a service of the Mass. Medical Society.

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