Ask any number of men what they think their odds of having a stroke are, and you might find many of them believe stroke is frighteningly unpredictable and can attack like a bolt from the blue – without warning, trailing death and disability in its wake.
That idea is dangerously wrong. The truth is that a stroke is the bullet at the end of a very long barrel and there is a lot you can do to dodge it.
The path to stroke can be started by heart disease – especially if you have an irregular heartbeat. It also can be started by arterial disease – especially if there is a build-up of plaque in the arteries of the neck. The chain of events that begins with cardiovascular disease and ends in stroke can take years, or even decades to evolve. You probably will not know that it is happening.
The good news is that you can do a lot to stop that process before it leads to a disabling neurological catastrophe – a brain attack.
Before we get to what you can do to stop stroke in its tracks, let’s get our heads around some basic facts:
Know Your Enemy
- Stroke is common.
- It is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., affecting 750,000 people each year, and killing over 150,000.
- Stroke is somewhat more common in men than in women, substantially more common in African Americans than in Americans of European descent.
- Stroke risk increases dramatically with age, just about doubling with every decade after the age of 45 years. Twenty-five percent of strokes occur in Americans under the age of 65 years.
Recognize the Most Common Signs
- Unusual headache
- Weakness or numbness – or difficulty talking, walking, or seeing.
- If someone suddenly can’t do something that they used to be able to do, especially on one side of the body – think stroke. If it is weakness or numbness, spinning dizziness, slurring or stumbling, can’t see or understand – think stroke.
You do not have to have all of these symptoms – or a majority – or any special combination. Stroke is often seen with just one of these symptoms.
If any symptoms come and go, that is a warning called a T.I.A. (Transient Ischemic Attack) which is a temporary loss of blood flow to a part of the brain. Do not ignore the warning. If it came and went, it can come back. A T.I.A. is a medical emergency. If someone has a T.I.A. get them to the hospital. And don’t worry if you think the doctor is going to think that you should have ignored it. The doctor is not going to think that or suspect you are a wimp/baby/whiner. The doctor is going to think, “That was smart.” And of course, it could save your life.
Do’s and Don’ts if Someone Has Symptoms
- Time is critical, delay is deadly.
- Do NOT wait to see if the symptoms will go away. They might – or the person might die.
- Do NOT wait until someone is feeling up to being moved.
- Do NOT wait to see if you can transport the stroke victim to the hospital on your own.
- Do call 911 immediately. Get emergency medical services to the stroke victim right away and let EMS get them to the hospital.
Good News About Prevention
By now if you are thinking, okay this is something I’d like to avoid – you’d be right. The good news is that there is quite a bit you can do to tip the odds of stroke prevention in your favor. Most of it is common sense and revolves around a healthy lifestyle, things we all know are good for us, but have an awfully hard time sticking to:
- Know your blood pressure. If it is high, get it treated. Take the treatment. Every day.
- Don’t smoke. What more needs to be said? Don’t smoke.
- If you have an irregular heartbeat, get it diagnosed and get it treated.
- If you have high cholesterol or diabetes, get it treated and stick to the treatment.
- Keep your weight down, get regular exercise, and don’t drink excessively.
Don’t live in fear of being a stroke victim. Make common sense more common and stop stroke before it stops you.
Charles J. Duffy, M.D., Ph.D., is a Professor of Neurology at URMC where his practice is focused on the diagnosis and care of patients with late-life dementing illnesses, especially Alzheimer’s disease. He received an A.B. at Harvard College, and an M.D. and Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. After completing a research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health he joined the faculty in Rochester.