Stroke: What You Know Can Save Your Life

Most of us know someone who has suffered a stroke.  The consequences can be devastating: paralysis, speech impairment, loss of memory and reasoning ability, coma, or death.  Annually, greater than half a million Americans suffer the effects of stroke, and many of these events are preventable.  May is stroke awareness month, and a good time to discuss this frightening and sometimes fatal vascular problem.

Stroke occurs when blood flow to brain cells is suddenly interrupted. Without blood to supply oxygen and nutrients, brain cells quickly begin to die. The most common type of stroke is called ischemic stroke.  An ischemic stroke occurs when a blood clot, or thrombus, forms within an artery in the brain, blocking the flow of blood through the affected vessel. These blood clots are generally related to atherosclerosis of the cerebral vessels. A different type of ischemic stroke occurs when a blood clot forms elsewhere in the body, then breaks loose and travels to the brain. A common cause of this type of stroke is the heart rhythm abnormality known as atrial fibrillation.


Some important stroke statistics include:

  • More than one-half million people in the United States experience a new or recurrent stroke each year
  • Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States and the leading cause of disability
  • Stroke kills about 160,000 Americans each year, or almost one out of three stroke victims
  • Three million Americans are currently permanently disabled from stroke
  • In the United States, stroke costs about $30 billion per year in direct costs and loss of productivity
  • Two-thirds of strokes occur in people over age 65 but they can occur at any age
  • Strokes affect men more often than women, although women are more likely to die from a stroke
  • Strokes affect blacks more often than whites, and are more likely to be fatal among blacks

The following Stroke Prevention Guidelines, published by the National Stroke Association, will help you learn how you may be able to lower your risk for a first stroke.

Know your blood pressure:

 High blood pressure (hypertension) is a major stroke risk factor if left untreated. Have your blood pressure checked periodically by a doctor or at health fairs, a local pharmacy or supermarket or with an automatic blood pressure machine.

Identify Atrial Fibrillation

Afib is an abnormal heartbeat that can increase stroke risk by 500%. Afib can cause blood to pool in the heart and may form a clot and cause a stroke. A doctor must diagnose and treat Afib.

Stop Smoking

Smoking doubles the risk of stroke. It damages blood vessel walls, speeds up artery clogging, raises blood pressure and makes the heart work harder.

Control Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol use has been linked to stroke in many studies. Most doctors recommend not drinking or drinking only in moderation - no more than two drinks each day.

Know Cholesterol Levels

Cholesterol is a fatty substance in blood that is made by the body. It also comes in food. High cholesterol levels can clog arteries and cause a stroke. Discuss cholesterol treatment goals with your physician.

Control Diabetes

A doctor and dietician can help manage diabetes.

Manage Exercise/Diet

Excess weight strains the circulatory system. Exercise three to five times a week. Maintain a diet low in calories, salt, saturated and trans fats and cholesterol. Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.

Transient Ischemic Attach (TIA)

A TIA is a temporary episode of stroke-like symptoms that can last a few minutes to 24 hours but usually causes no permanent damage or disability. TIA and stroke symptoms are the same. Recognizing and treating a TIA can reduce stroke risk. Up to 40 percent of people who experience a TIA may have a stroke.

Be sure to ask your physician what YOU should do to reduce your risk for stroke and heart disease!

Written by: Dr. Robert Smith, Oklahoma Heart Institute Cardiologist.