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Lower Stroke Risk

Eight out of every 10 strokes could be prevented with a few simple lifestyle changes. That’s why, every May, the American Stroke Association teams up with the American Heart Association with a single goal: Raising stroke awareness.

When someone has a stroke, the treatment window to minimize damage is very short – typically within three to four hours from the onset of symptoms. Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States and number one cause of long-term disability. With increased awareness and understanding of total body health, these numbers are falling, but not fast enough.

In this post, we discuss lifestyle changes that can help reduce your stroke risk as well as the symptoms and different types of stroke.

What Is a Stroke?

A stroke occurs when there is a disruption in the flow of blood to the brain due to a ruptured blood vessel or blood clot. Blood, of course, supplies your brain with oxygen. Without oxygen, the affected brain cells die.

There are two main types of stroke. An ischemic stroke is the most common type, accounting for around 87 percent of strokes. It happens when a blood clot interrupts blood flow, usually due to atherosclerosis in the arteries in the neck or head. The clot either blocks blood flow through the artery or it becomes dislodged.

Hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a weakened blood vessel or a brain aneurysm bursts. Blood fills or surrounds the brain, leading to swelling and pressure that severely damages brain tissue. Although fewer than 15 percent of all strokes are of the hemorrhagic type, they account for around 40 percent of all stroke-related deaths.

There is also an event known as a transient ischemic attack, also known as a TIA or mini stroke. A temporary blood clot causes a TIA. Although these are considered slightly less serious, the patient is not diagnosed with TIA unless symptoms resolve with 24 hours. In other words, there’s no way of knowing it was a mini stroke and not a full stroke until after the fact. What’s more, having a mini stroke dramatically increases your risk of future stroke.

Anyone experiencing stroke symptoms requires emergency care.

What Does a Stroke Do to You?

The affects of a stroke vary according to which part of the brain is damaged. To understand how a stroke affects the body requires understanding that each side of your body is controlled by the opposite side of your brain. In addition, different sides of the brain control different functions and behaviors.

If the stroke occurs on the left side of your brain, possible results include:

  • Paralysis on the right side of your body
  • Communication problems, including language, reading, speech, and writing
  • Behavioral changes, specifically becoming more cautious or slow-to-act

If you have a stroke on the right side of your brain, possible results include:

  • Paralysis on the left side of your body
  • Vision problems
  • Behavioral changes, specifically becoming more impulsive and inquisitive

A stroke may also occur in the brain stem. If this happens, you may experience changes on both sides of the body, including paralysis from the neck down.

No matter where in the brain the stroke occurs, you may experience the following:

  • Chemical changes in the brain that affect behavior
  • Communication issues
  • Memory loss
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Seizures

Are You at Risk of Stroke?

When it comes to disease, there are two types of risk factors: those you have no control over and those you do.

Let’s look first at the risk factors that are outside your control:

  • Nearly 75 percent of strokes occur in people over the age of 65 (that’s still nearly 200,000 strokes per year for Americans under age 65)
  • A family history of stroke
  • A previous stroke, heart attack, or TIA raises your risk
  • African Americans have a higher stroke risk than Caucasians do, no matter what age they are
  • Women are both more likely to have and die from a stroke

The good news is that there are numerous controllable risk factors. Get any of these risk factors under control to dramatically reduce your risk of stroke.

  • Atrial fibrillation
  • Carotid artery disease
  • Diabetes
  • Diet
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Inactive lifestyle
  • Obesity
  • Peripheral artery disease
  • Smoking
  • Other forms of heart disease

The most effective ways to lower your risk of just about any disease including quitting smoking and getting your weight under control with regular exercise and a healthy diet. Increasing your physical activity, including 30 minutes per day of exercise, and following a heart-healthy diet helps eliminate most of the controllable risk factors.

What Are the Stroke Symptoms?

Use the acronym FAST to help remember the symptoms of a stroke. It also tells you how you should respond when you do notice them: quickly!

  • F: Face drooping. If you aren’t sure, ask the person to smile. If the smile is lopsided or uneven, that indicates face drooping.
  • A: Arm weakness. The arm may also feel numb. Check by asking the person to raise both arms. If one arm drifts downward, that indicates arm weakness.
  • S: Speech difficulty. Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, such as the sky is blue. If they cannot speak, or their speech is slurred, they may be having a stroke.
  • T: Time to call 911. Call 911 immediately if you notice any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms have ceased. The paramedics will likely ask when you first noticed the symptoms.

Other stroke symptoms include blurred vision, troubles with balance, and a sudden, severe headache.

If you experience any of these symptoms yourself, call 911 immediately. If you notice someone else experiencing them, make a note of the time and call 911.

The best things you can do to reduce your risk of stroke is work with your doctor to control your weight and blood pressure. He or she understands your current health levels and the steps you can take to improve them. Also, if you smoke, stop. Smoking tobacco is one of the absolute worst things you can do to your body.