Strokes, or “brain attacks” can permanantly—and fatally—affect parts of the brain, as seen in these scans.
Photo by Courtesy Flickr/IntelFreePress
Picture this: You and your husband are headed to your favorite restaurant for a date night. You drank a couple of glasses of good Pinot, dove into a filet topped with a bleu-cheese rub, and finished with some decadently rich concoction crowned with a scoop of ice cream. You've had a great time, and the night is young. As you're walking out the door, discussing what to do next, the feeling hits. It's a foreign sensation that's frighteningly not right. You move your lips to tell your husband something's wrong, and what comes out is slurred or unintelligible. Your husband, perplexed, asks, "Are you OK? What's going on?"
At that point, the right side of your body becomes numb, and your right arm seems to dangle heavily at your side. You can't will it to move. You feel yourself lean to the right. Your husband, horrified, catches you and reaches into his pocket for his cell phone to call 911. Within minutes, the wail of sirens assaults your ears, and you're nearly blinded by flashing red and yellow lights as an ambulance pulls up. You don't have much time to think as you're lowered onto a stretcher and strapped in for a ride you never planned to take.
What you've just read is a hypothetical example of stroke. Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States and often leads to long-term disability in adults. The National Stroke Association offers other sobering numbers. Every 40 seconds in America, someone suffers a stroke. Every four minutes, someone will die from a stroke. Although media give breast cancer much attention as a major killer of women, the National Stroke Association asserts that women are twice as likely to die from a stroke than from breast cancer.
The Mississippi picture is even bleaker. Our state has the dubious distinction of being part of the Stroke Belt, a group of southeastern states that have a higher-than-average occurrence of stroke.
What is a stroke? Most of us have heard the term "heart attack" and have a general idea of what that is. A stroke is a "brain attack." It's a potential killer that the Centers for Disease Control says strikes more than 795,000 people a year. Stroke caused 5.5 percent of all Mississippi deaths in 2006, the CDC reports. Any time you have an interruption in the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your brain, a stroke can happen, and with it, the possibility of disability or death.
Two types of strokes exist: ischemic stroke and hemorrhagic stroke. The most common type, ischemic stroke, happens when either a blood clot or fatty buildup in the vessel walls block blood vessels. The less common but also potentially catastrophic hemorrhagic stroke occurs due to bleeding in the brain from a ruptured blood vessel. Either type of stroke is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention.
This is a lot of gloom and doom to hit readers living in the Stroke Belt. Can we prevent a stroke? How do we recognize a stroke? What do we do if we recognize a stroke happening in front of us?
Knowledge is the most effective weapon to help you prevent or survive a stroke. The CDC (cdc.gov/stroke/facts.htm) identifies a number of risk factors. Some of these are beyond our control. African Americans, diabetics, people over 55 years of age, and those with a family history of stroke are at higher risk of having a stroke. A history of heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels also increase your risk.
We can't reverse our age or change our family tree, but we can make lifestyle changes to reduce our stroke risk. Have your blood pressure checked. See a doctor if you have high blood pressure. Smoking is a tremendous risk factor. Alcohol is also associated with stroke, so drink in moderation. High-fat foods can increase your cholesterol level and cause fatty deposit buildup on artery walls, creating a stroke-friendly environment. Limit high fat, fried and salty foods. Bear in mind that many fast-food offerings are loaded with fat and salt.
The American Heart Association (everydaychoices.org) recommends eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. If you're diabetic, medication is only one piece of the puzzle in managing your condition. Team up with your doctor to hammer out a treatment plan that incorporates lifestyle changes including proper nutrition and exercise.
What if you see someone showing signs of a stroke? The National Stroke Association has a great acronym for the warning signs you need to look for and what to do. Think "F-A-S-T." Check the Face. If you suspect someone is having a stroke, ask her to smile and check for drooping on one side. Check the Arms: ask her to raise both arms, and see if one arm is drifting back down. She may not be able to lift one arm at all. Check Speech: Listen for slurred or halting speech by asking her to repeat a simple sentence. Check the Time: Don't hesitate. If the person is showing any of the above signs, call 911 right away.
Take note of the time the person started showing signs. Treatment for ischemic stroke involves giving the clot-dissolving drug, Tissue plasminogen activator, tPA. Administration of tPA is time-dependent. Every second counts. Hemorrhagic strokes also require emergent intervention.
How a stroke is treated depends on the type of stroke and any conditions that could contraindicate tPA; for example, anyone who has a hemorrhagic stroke will not be able to take tPA, due to serious bleeding risks. In the case of hemorrhagic stroke, surgery may be necessary, depending on the size of the bleed.
Stroke is serious and should be taken seriously. Be the captain of your own wellness cruise. Know your risks. Know the signs of stroke. And be well.
American Heart Association everydaychoices.org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Stroke Association stroke.org