Are you at risk for a stroke? It seems like a simple enough question – but the answer may elude you! If you have already suffered from a stroke, whether mild or severe, you are definitely not alone. Over 700,000 people in the United States have a stroke each year. About 500,000 are first strokes and about 200,000 are recurrent attacks. Could you be one of that statistic this year? How do you know? What happens when you have a stroke? Keep reading for the answers to all of those questions – and more!
What is a stroke?
A stroke happens when blood flow to the brain is blocked or interrupted, either by a blood clot (referred to as an ischemic stroke) or a ruptured blood vessel (hemorrhagic stroke). Deprived of the oxygen and nutrients that the blood provides, brain cells start to die—making immediate medical attention essential to survival and recovery.
The brain is a very intricate organ which regulates every single function of your body - be it talking, moving, sleeping, sweating, understanding, or feeling. Your precious brain needs a constant supply of blood to feed its cells with oxygen and nutrients. When a stroke occurs, the blood supply is interrupted and the cells die relatively quickly. Brain cells normally start dying after 4 minutes without oxygen. Unlike cells in some of the other parts of your body, brain cells do not have the ability to regenerate themselves. Once they die, there is no way to bring them back to life.
When brain cells die or become damaged, the bodily functions that are controlled by those cells become impaired. For example, it is very common that stroke victims experience some kind of cognitive or physical disability such as slow speech, memory problems, reading and writing problems, or paralysis of a body part. The impairment may be mild or severe, temporary or permanent, depending on how quickly the blood supply is restored to the brain. In severe strokes, the consequences may be fatal.
The most common first signs of a stroke usually happen suddenly. Warning signs that come on without warning include:
- weakness or a numb sensation in the arms, legs or face, generally isolated on one side of the body
- difficulty speaking
- problems understanding conversation
- blurry vision or complete vision loss in one or both eyes
- difficulty walking and maintaining balance
- loss of consciousness
Who is at risk?
People who are most at risk for stroke include individuals of both sexes with heart conditions, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, and women who take birth control pills.
How can you avoid a stroke?
Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States will have a stroke. Don’t let it be you. Try these lifestyle and nutritional changes to decrease your risk:
Give up the cigarettes. Smoking can lead to the buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries and damages the cerebrovascular system, especially among women who also take oral contraceptives.
Keep track of your blood pressure. It’s not enough that your doctor knows your blood pressure numbers—you need to know what they are and what it means when those numbers get too high. Ideally, your blood pressure should be below 120/80 mmHg. The first number is your systolic pressure, which measures pressure when you heart is beating, and the second number is you diastolic pressure, measured between heartbeats. If you don’t know your numbers, ask your doctor or nurse to test you.
Balance diet and exercise. Be mindful of your caloric intake so you don’t gain weight—excess pounds are another risk factor for stroke. Sodas and sugary foods such as candies should be eaten sparingly, if at all. Also, try to eat more than five daily servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Consider natural supplements. If you are having a hard time adjusting your diet, nutritional supplements can help. For example if you don’t like fish, omega-3 supplements can help you get more beneficial fats in your system. Fiber pills and powders can keep blood pressure within a normal range. And antioxidants—including vitamins A and C—have been shown to improve recovery following a stroke. A recent study released in Lancet in 2008 showed a decrease in the risk for a first stroke by 18% when folic acid was regularly introduced into the diet.
Don’t become a statistic! By taking these measures and being aware of the risk factors, you can do your part to avoid falling victim to stroke.