Stroke prevention and treatment: what you need to know

Most people are aware of the damage that a stroke can do. But what many may not know is just how frequently that damage is done. Each year, more than 795,000 people in America experience a stroke. Nearly 140,000 of those victims die, making stroke the fifth leading cause of death. And those who survive often face lifelong physical, mental and emotional disabilities — stroke causes more disabilities each year than accidents, diabetes and nervous system disorders like multiple sclerosis.

That’s why American Stroke month is the time to learn what you can do to prevent a stroke, and how to recognize the symptoms to minimize lasting, debilitating aftereffects.

What causes a stroke?

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted, either by a clot (ischemic stroke) or by a ruptured blood vessel that prevents blood flow to the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). The most common type is ischemic, which accounts for 87% of all cases.

Another type of stroke that has gained wider awareness in recent years is a TIA (transient ischemic attack), also known as a ministroke. Like an ischemic stroke, a TIA is caused by a blockage, but this blockage is temporary. Symptoms may last for as little as five minutes, but no permanent damage is done. However, a TIA puts you at higher risk for a full-blown stroke down the road.

Are you at risk?

The short answer is yes. Because of heredity or undetected conditions, such as a weakness or bulge in an artery, a stroke can happen at any age. However, there are other major factors that increase your chances:

  • High blood pressure (over 120/80)
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Inactivity
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Sleep apnea
  • Heart disease, such as arrhythmia, heart failure, defects or an infection
  • Family history of stroke, heart attack or TIA
  • Age (55 and older)
  • Race — African-Americans have a higher risk of stroke and death from stroke
  • Use of birth control pills or hormone therapies including estrogen
  • Increased estrogen levels from pregnancy and childbirth

What you can do to help prevent a stroke

While you can’t prevent age, heredity or race factors, you can make lifestyle changes that are proven to reduce your chances of suffering a stroke.

  • Control your high blood pressure through exercise, stress management, maintaining a healthy weight and reducing your consumption of alcohol and salt. Your doctor may also recommend cholesterol-lowering medication.
  • Cut down on cholesterol, saturated fat and trans fats. If your serum cholesterol remains high after these changes, your doctor may prescribe medication.
  • Eat healthy. Get five servings a day of fruits and vegetables. You also may want to consider the Mediterranean diet which emphasizes olive oil, fruit, nuts, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Quit tobacco.
  • Take control of your diabetes with diet, exercise, weight control and, if necessary, medication.
  • Lose weight. Being overweight contributes to many stroke risk factors, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Even losing 10 pounds can lower your blood pressure and improve your cholesterol levels.
  • Exercise. Whether it’s walking, swimming, jogging, riding your bike or sweating along to an exercise video, work your way up to 30 minutes of activity a day.
  • Reduce or eliminate your alcohol intake.
  • Treat your sleep apnea. If your partner notices that you snore or that your breathing is interrupted when you sleep, your doctor may recommend an oxygen mask at night to keep your airway open.
  • Don’t do drugs. Street drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines are known risk factors for strokes (among myriad other problems).

Recognizing the symptoms

The odds of surviving a stroke and avoiding or minimizing permanent complications are greater when emergency treatment begins quickly. An easy way to remember the most common stroke symptoms is with the acronym FAST.

F — Face. Does one side of the face droop when you try to smile?
A — Arms. Lift both arms. If one begins to drift downward, it’s a warning sign.
S — Speech. Try to recite a simple phrase to see if your speech is slurred or strange.
T — Time. If you observe any of these signs, waste none of it. Call 9-1-1 immediately.

If you suspect that you or someone you’re with is having a stroke, don’t wait. St. Clair Hospital is certified by The Joint Commission to provide the highest level of stroke care. From advanced diagnostic testing to quickly pinpoint the cause, to the most modern inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation services, St. Clair delivers the care you need, when you need it, all close to home. To learn more, visit