It’s the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the most common cause of adult disability. As alarming as those statistics are, you may be surprised to learn that 80 percent of strokes are preventable.
“That statistic from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association speaks to the combination of benefits that come from blood pressure control, tobacco cessation, diabetes control/prevention, lipid management and, very importantly, starting blood thinners for atrial fibrillation,” explains cardiologist Boris Arbit, MD, UCLA Medical Center.
So, while not all strokes are preventable, what you choose to do and not do can significantly reduce your risk of having one.
What a Stroke Is
A stroke results from a lack of blood flow to the brain that causes temporary or permanent damage to brain tissue. That can happen from an arterial blockage in the body or brain, or when there is bleeding within the brain.
Brain cells need a constant supply of blood to function normally. If blood flow is interrupted even for a few seconds, neurons begin to malfunction. If blood flow is not quickly restored, neurons begin to die. That’s why it’s critical to get immediate medical attention if stroke symptoms are suspected.
Types of Stroke
Ischemic strokes are due to arterial blood blockages, and up to 80 percent of strokes are of this type. There are three main subtypes of ischemic strokes:
- Thrombotic Stroke is when a clot (thrombus) develops in a narrowed part of an artery in the neck or brain and blocks blood flow. Fatty buildup in the arteries typically causes these blockages.
- Embolic Stroke results when a clot that develops elsewhere in the body, usually in the heart, aorta, or carotid arteries in the neck, breaks free and travels in the bloodstream to the brain. This type of clot is called an embolus. In addition to a blood clot, an embolus could be an air bubble or a piece of debris.
- Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA) is a sudden transient episode that causes neurologic symptoms for a short time, usually 20 minutes or less, and passes without causing permanent damage. Though symptoms are fleeting, they should not be ignored.
“Patients should be seen immediately,” stresses Dr. Arbit. “The possible causes of a TIA will need to be identified and appropriate treatments must be started, as patients have an increased risk of recurrence.”
The other main type of stroke, responsible for about 13 percent of episodes, is called a hemorrhagic stroke. This occurs when there is bleeding within the brain itself. That can happen when a brain aneurysm ruptures. A brain aneurysm is a thin or weak spot on an artery that balloons out and fills with blood. If it bursts, blood seeps into the brain or surrounding areas.
Benefit of Emergency Treatment
Up to 50 percent of adults who experience stroke don’t seek immediate medical care. To reduce damage, it’s critical to call 911. Traveling in an ambulance saves precious time and management can begin while enroute to the emergency department. Emergency treatment for ischemic stroke includes a powerful clot-busting medication called tPA, but it must be given within 4 ½ hours after symptoms begin. The earlier it is given within that time-frame, the better the chance for a good outcome.
Reducing Stroke Risk
High blood pressure is the most potent risk factor, and there are many medications and lifestyle changes that can help reduce this condition. High cholesterol is another major contributor to stroke, as excess LDL can cause build up in blood vessels, creating blockages. Diabetes also changes blood vessels, increasing stroke risk. Controlling blood sugar decreases that risk.
Eating healthfully, exercising, and lowering stress helps reduce stroke risk. Of course, these lifestyle changes can be difficult. Talk with your doctor. He or she is your ally and can help you overcome barriers and guide you to better wellbeing.
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