As a leading cause of death in the U.S., strokes represent a threat to us all. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that an American dies of a stroke every four minutes. In honor of May’s status as National Stroke Awareness Month, here is a primer on the basics of stroke, how to control your risk of having a stroke, and how you can stay aware of this significant threat.
What Happens During a Stroke?
You may be familiar with the concept of a stroke, but you may not understand the specifics of the disease. A stroke is known to medical professionals as a cerebral vascular accident, or CVA. During a stroke, your brain tissue becomes damaged. Most commonly, strokes happen when a blood vessel that supplies the brain becomes blocked, causing a decrease in the brain’s blood flow, an event known as ischemia. The CDC reports that ischemic strokes account for 87% of all strokes.
Less commonly, a stroke can be hemorrhagic, meaning that brain tissue becomes damaged by excessive bleeding that occurs when a blood vessel bursts.
Whether ischemic or hemorrhagic, stroke experts caution that “time is brain.” This means that the earlier a stroke is identified, the better a person’s odds of receiving brain-sparing therapy.
Who Is at Risk of Having a Stroke?
A stroke can affect anyone, but the following risk factors can increase your likelihood of having a stroke.
- Age: Americans over the age of 65 have a higher risk of stroke, with nearly 75% of strokes affecting people in this age group.
- Ethnicity: The CDC reports that the risk of stroke for black Americans is double that of white Americans, and Black Americans have the highest stroke death rate.
- Geographical location: People who live in the southeastern United States have a higher likelihood of dying from a stroke.
- Health history: Having a medical condition such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, nicotine abuse, or obesity can increase your risk of stroke.
- Previous stroke: The CDC reports that almost a quarter of strokes occur in people who have previously had a stroke.
While these risk factors may seem intimidating, your risk of stroke is largely under your control. In fact, experts report that up to 80% of strokes can be prevented when you adopt a healthy lifestyle.
How to Recognize a Stroke
Outside of being aware of stroke risk factors, one of the most important ways to enhance your awareness of strokes is to become familiar with the symptoms of a stroke. Many leading stroke authorities use the F.A.S.T. acronym to teach stroke recognition; its components stand for Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, and Time to call 9-1-1.
To quickly assess someone using F.A.S.T., you can perform the following series of simple commands:
- Ask them to smile and evaluate for any facial asymmetry.
- Ask them to raise their arms forward and evaluate any arm drifting or dropping.
- Ask them to repeat a simple sentence and evaluate for speech garbling or slurring.
- Call 9-1-1 if someone is showing these symptoms, even if they are otherwise acting normally or the symptoms seem to be resolving.
Other indications of a stroke can include the sudden development of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty walking
- Severe headache
- Visual changes
The American Stroke Association also cautions that a specific type of stroke, known as a posterior circulation stroke, can cause a different set of symptoms, such as dizziness, vertigo, balance problems, or nausea and vomiting. If you or a loved one experiences a sudden onset of these symptoms, you should call 9-1-1 immediately.
The best way to decrease your chance of having a stroke is to stay educated on stroke prevention. If you already have a medical condition that may predispose you to stroke, you can lower your risk by getting regular medical evaluations and taking your medication exactly as directed. When you head to the pharmacy, make sure to use ScriptSave® WellRx to save up to 80% on your prescriptions.
Libby Pellegrini is a nationally certified physician assistant. She has worked in numerous healthcare settings, including the rural United States, an inner-city Level I trauma center, several suburban acute care centers, and a boutique, personalized medicine clinic in Southeast Asia. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.