May is Stroke Awareness Month
Don’t Let a Stroke Surprise You – Recognize the Signs; Reduce Your Risk
By Jose Panszi, M.D., Neurologist
|Jose Panszi, M.D., Neurologist
A bad headache.
Confusion or fumbling to find words.
It’s tempting to explain away troubling symptoms and chalk them up to fatigue, eye trouble, one too many cups of coffee, or any number of things. But these symptoms – particularly if they’re severe – may signal a stroke.
Stroke is the third leading cause of death, behind cancer and heart disease. A stroke occurs when blood flow to an area of the brain is either stopped or significantly impaired. When this happens, this area of the brain becomes damaged; and, as a result, the body part or function controlled by this part of the brain is negatively affected.
A stroke can change a person’s life forever. It can leave the victim with moderate to severe physical, mental and/or psychological disabilities. Depending on the area of the brain affected, a stroke victim may lose memory, speech, balance, fine motor skills, control over certain muscles or movement of entire limbs – even paralysis of one side of the body. A person’s personality or behavior can be forever changed by a stroke. They may have difficulty reading, processing information or even eating.
About 87 percent of all strokes are ischemic strokes meaning a blockage of a blood vessel that supplies blood to the brain occurs. The remaining 13 percent are called hemorrhagic strokes – strokes caused by a weakened blood vessel that breaks and bleeds into the surrounding brain tissue.
Another frightening statistic: according to the National Stroke Association, people who have a stroke are four times as likely to have another stroke during their lifetime. Recurrent strokes carry an even higher risk of death and disability because the brain has previously been injured.
Warning Signs of a Stroke
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
- Sudden trouble seeing in part of one’s visual field
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden, severe headache with no known cause
Not all of these warning signs may be present, and one or more may go away. Don’t ignore these signs or dismiss them, even if they do not persist. Call
9-1-1 or seek medical assistance immediately.
Source: American Stroke Association
The American Heart Association and American Stroke Association offer seven common-sense measures to reduce the risk of stroke and promote good health in general. Some stroke risk factors cannot be controlled, such as age (risk increases after age 55), male gender, African American ethnicity, or family history of stroke. However, following are no-cost, straightforward guidelines that are easy to implement. Best of all, even moderate improvements can make a difference in your risk level and improve your overall health.
Just 30 minutes of exercise a day is all it takes to lower your risk. Regular exercise reduces LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, increases HDL (“good”) cholesterol, reduces stress, and helps control weight. The AHA suggests at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week, or a combination of both types.
Cholesterol comes from two sources: 75 percent is manufactured by our bodies, and 25 percent comes from the foods we eat. A total cholesterol reading (the sum of HDL and LDL cholesterol) of over 200 is considered to be an increased risk level. Steps to lowering your cholesterol include eating a diet low in saturated fat and trans fats, and consuming less than 300 mg of cholesterol each day. Your doctor may prescribe medication or recommend other lifestyle changes.
You’ve heard it before. The right diet can help keep your weight and blood pressure under control. Stick with the basics: fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meats and poultry, and fat-free or low fat dairy products. These items are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber, and low in calories. Fiber-rich items help you feel full and lower your cholesterol levels. Strive for less processed foods, and keep your total daily sodium intake under 1500 mg/day.
Manage blood pressure
According to the AHA, one in three adults has high blood pressure – but more than 20 percent don’t know it. High blood pressure is a reading of more than 120 Hg systolic (the top number) and 80 mm Hg diastolic (the bottom number). Hypertension has no symptoms, but can lead to blood clots and blocked or hardened arteries. This makes it more difficult for blood to get to vital organs, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. There is no cure for high blood pressure, but it can be managed with a healthy, low-sodium diet, regular exercise, stress management, limited alcohol consumption and avoiding tobacco use.
More than 145 million Americans age 20 or over are overweight or obese. Losing weight and keeping it off with a combination of proper diet and regular exercise reduces your risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
Reduce blood sugar
People with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease or a stroke than people without diabetes. Even when blood sugar is under control, diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Controlling blood sugar and having regular check-ups to monitor weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure can slow down the progression of the disease.
Smoking is one of the most preventable contributors to early death in the United States. Lighting up nearly doubles the risk of stroke, decreases HDL cholesterol and affects physical conditioning, which makes regular exercise difficult. It also contributes to a number of other medical problems, from blood clots to coronary artery disease.
If you suspect that someone is having a stroke, act quickly; mere seconds can make an enormous difference in the outcome for a stroke survivor. Call 9-1-1 and try to recall the time that symptoms first appeared. If a stroke victim receives immediate medical assistance, a clot-busting drug can be administered by medical personnel within three hours of first symptoms which may reduce the likelihood of long-term disability resulting from a stroke. The quicker that medical care is received, the greater a stroke victim’s chances are of not only surviving a stroke, but also minimizing its effects.
This month – Stroke Awareness Month – is a perfect time to educate yourself and talk with your physician about your risk for stroke and a plan to reduce that risk.
Sources: National Stroke Association, stroke.org; American Stroke Association, strokeassociation.org