What You Need to Know about Stroke

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Each year in the United States, there are more than 700,000 new strokes. Stroke is the third–leading cause of death in the country. And stroke causes more serious long–term disabilities than any other disease. Nearly three–quarters of all strokes occur in people over age 65, and the risk of having a stroke more than doubles each decade after age 55.

Richard BensonFor African Americans, stroke is even more common and more deadly–even in young and middle–aged adults–than for any other ethnic or racial group in the United States.

Learning about stroke can help you act in time to save a coworker, friend or relative. And making lifestyle changes can help you prevent stroke.

Why is Stroke an Emergency?

A stroke is serious–just like a heart attack. A stroke is sometimes called a "brain attack." Most often, stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain stops because it is blocked by a clot. The brain cells in the immediate area begin to die because they stop getting the oxygen and nutrients they need to function.

There are two kinds of stroke. The most common, called ischemic stroke, is caused by a blood clot that blocks or plugs a blood vessel in the brain. The other kind of stroke, called hemorrhagic stroke, is caused by a blood vessel that breaks and bleeds into the brain. Stroke damage in the brain can affect the entire body, resulting in mild to severe disabilities or even death. Disabilities caused by stroke include paralysis, problems with thinking, problems with speaking, and emotional problems.

New treatments are available that greatly reduce stroke damage, but to prevent or minimize disability, you need to arrive at the hospital immediately after symptoms start. Knowing stroke symptoms, calling 911 immediately, and getting to a hospital are critical.

Stroke Symptoms

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg (especially on one side of the body)
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one eye or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

Because stroke injures the brain, you may not realize you’re having a stroke. People around you might not know it either–they may think you are confused. But they may be in a better position to help. You may not be able to call 911 on your own. That’s why everyone should know the signs of stroke–and know how to act fast.

Don’t wait for the symptoms to improve or worsen. If you believe you are having a stroke–or you think someone you know is having a stroke–call 911 immediately. Making the decision to call for medical help can make the difference in avoiding a lifelong disability.

Stroke Prevention

Conditions that can cause stroke are very common among African Americans. The best treatment for stroke is prevention. You can reduce your risk of having a stroke by taking action to improve your health.

While family history of stroke plays a role in your risk, there are many risk factors you can control:

  • If you have high blood pressure, work with your doctor to get it under control. Many people do not realize they have high blood pressure, which usually produces no symptoms but is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Managing your high blood pressure is the most important thing you can do to avoid stroke.
  • If you smoke, quit.
  • If you have diabetes, learn how to manage it. As with high blood pressure, diabetes usually causes no symptoms but it increases the chance of stroke.
  • If you are overweight, start maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

Why Is Stroke Treatment Urgent?

Every minute counts. The longer that blood flow is cut off to the brain, the greater the damage. The most common kind of stroke, ischemic stroke, can be treated with a drug that dissolves clots blocking the blood flow. The window of opportunity to start treating stroke patients is three hours. But a person needs to get to the hospital immediately after the onset of symptoms to be evaluated and receive treatment.

Talk to your doctor about your personal risk factors for having a stroke. For more information about stroke prevention and treatment, call the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at 1–800–352–9424 or visit their site.

Dr. Richard T. Benson is program director in the Office of Minority Health and Research at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) at the National Institutes of Health.

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