"Stroke is an injury to the brain caused by a blockage of its blood supply. Most people are unaware that stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease and cancer," says Margaret Lewin, MD, FACP, medical director of Cinergy Health. "People should also know that that stroke is the leading cause of serious, long-term disability. About 795,000 Americans suffer a stroke every year, and one-quarter of them are under the age of 65."
"Death and disability from stroke are decreased by early recognition and a shorter time getting the person to an emergency room where medications can be given." —Margaret Lewin, MD
What Happens to Your Brain During a Stroke?
Blood supply to the brain can be cut off by a blood clot that travels to the brain or by the narrowing of an artery in the brain from arterial disease; this type of stoke is called an ischemic stroke. Blood supply can also be cut off if a blood vessel in the brain ruptures; this is called a hemorrhagic stroke. Regardless of the cause, as soon as blood supply is cut off, brain cells start to die. If part of the brain goes without its blood supply for just one minute, two million brain cells will die. That is why it is so important to recognize the symptoms of a stroke.
Depending on the area of the brain that is affected, a stroke can cause you to lose control of different parts of your body. It could be the ability to speak or the ability to move an arm or a leg. The damage may be temporary, partial or complete, depending on how long it takes to get treated. "The symptoms of stroke are primarily those of a sudden loss of function," notes Dr. Lewin. Here are the symptoms you need to know:
- Sudden weakness or numbness of the face, arm or leg on one side of the body
- Sudden loss of vision or ability to speak
- Sudden onset of confusion, trouble forming or understanding words
- Sudden onset of dizziness, loss of balance and trouble walking
- Sudden severe headache
"In addition, women frequently present with atypical symptoms, often leading to a delay in diagnosis and treatment," warns Lewin. Here are some other symptoms to keep in mind, especially for women:
- Pain in the face or one limb
- Severe headache without an obvious cause
- Generalized weakness
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Change in the level of consciousness
Who Is At Risk?
"In general, the incidence of stroke is higher in men. Young women have a slightly higher incidence than men of the same age because of the risks associated with pregnancy and the birth control pill. The number of strokes among older women is greater than in men because more women live into old-age. African American women have twice the risk of Caucasian women," says Lewin. Here are some risk factors you need to be aware of:
- Being over age 55
- Heart disease and hardening of the arteries
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Being overweight or inactive
- Drinking too much alcohol
An early warning of stroke that should never be ignored is a transient ischemic attack (TIA). A TIA is a type of mini-stoke that causes brief stroke symptoms that come and go. About 15 percent of people who have a stroke have TIA symptoms first.
Stroke Tips for Caregivers
A stroke is a medical emergency and every minute is important. If you are a caregiver for someone who has any symptoms of a stroke call 9-1-1. The National Stroke Association recommends that everyone learn the F.A.S.T. method for recognizing stroke symptoms:
F for face. Ask the person to smile or move their facial muscles and look for one sided weakness.
A for arms. Ask the person to lift their arms to see if one arm is weak or not moving.
S for speech. Ask the person to repeat a few words and listen for slurred or disordered speech.
T for time. Remember that time is of the essence. Call 9-1-1 and get the person to emergency treatment.