While stroke can strike suddenly, you can recognize its onset by these warning signs:
• Confusion and trouble speaking or understanding
• Trouble walking, losing balance, becoming dizzy or losing coordination of the arms or legs on one side of the body
• Changes to the head and eyes, including trouble seeing in one or both eyes or having double vision; slurred speech; numbness or weakness of one side of the face; or a noticeable droop of the one side of the mouth or face
• Numbness of the arms or legs on one side of the body
• Severe headache that comes on suddenly and with no known cause
If you notice any of these symptoms, call 911 and have the person taken to the nearest emergency room. Make a note of the time, as that will help a physician determine the best course of treatment.
Some risk factors for stroke you cannot control, such as age and heredity. Some other factors do allow you to take action.
High blood pressure is the leading cause of stroke and the most important controllable risk factor. Your physician can prescribe medications to control blood pressure.
Cigarette smoke, with its nicotine and carbon monoxide, damages the cardiovascular system in many ways.
Diabetes increases the risk for stroke, and many people with diabetes have other risk factors, such as high blood pressure. Following your treatment plan along with diet and exercise can help reduce this risk.
With cardiovascular disease, blood vessels are narrowed by the buildup of fatty deposits, known as plaque, and become more susceptible to blockage by a clot. Heart conditions such as atrial fibrillation can increase the risk of clots, which can travel to the brain and cause a stroke. Again, exercise and a heart-healthy diet can combat these risks.
May is an ideal time to get started reducing your risk of stroke.
• Quit smoking: Smoking nearly doubles the risk of stroke, and your risk starts to decline as soon as you give up cigarettes.
• Limit your salt intake to help control blood pressure: This includes reducing consumption of the many processed foods that are high in sodium.
• Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all: Heavy drinking, including binge drinking, contributes to stroke.
• Eat more fruits and vegetables: For example, serve fruits for dessert or snacks.
• Buy whole-grain breads and cereals: One study showed that women reduced their stroke risk by consuming more whole-grain foods.
• Exercise regularly: For example, take a brisk walk or ride a bike for 30 minutes a day.
• Ask your physician about taking an aspirin a day: In certain people aspirin lowers the risk of stroke.
• Practice good dental hygiene habits: People with gum disease have a higher risk of stroke.
• Seek treatment for depression: Depressed adults are more likely to suffer a stroke.
If you see the warning signs of stroke, remember that time lost is brain lost. When a clot blocks blood flow to the brain, brain cells begin to die for lack of oxygen. Without immediate treatment for this “brain attack,” only about one in five stroke sufferers makes a near or full recovery.
If a patient arrives at an emergency room equipped to treat stroke within three hours of the warning signs, a physician can administer tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), a medication to break up the clot.
Northern Nevada Medical Center has a stroke response team, whose members have received training to assess the patient, determine whether the patient has had a stroke and decide on the appropriate treatment.
Learn about stroke by attending my presentation, “Brain Attacks: Stroke risk factors and warning signs,” at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Sparks Medical Building, Suite 203, 2385 E. Prater Way. Call 356-NNMC to register.
Aaron Heide, MD, is a neurologist with the Northern Nevada Medical Group. Heide earned his medical degree from the University of Washington School of Medicine and completed his residency at Tufts University, in Boston. He completed a fellowship in stroke at Lahey Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., and is board certified in neurology and vascular neurology.