Last year my 80-year-old mother had a stroke. While washing her face one morning, cells in her brain’s right hemisphere gave way. Blood flooded the area. Immediately her left side collapsed as messages from the nerves in her legs and arms found no reception. The EMTs transported her to the hospital, and from there to Maine Medical where she spent a week in the Critical Care Unit, then a month in a Portland rehabilitation hospital followed by three months in a skilled nursing facility. Today, 18 months later, she is in a wheelchair most hours of the day. Her left arm remains useless. A life lived at high speed has slowed to a crawl.
My mother suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, sudden bleeding in the brain. The much more common form of stroke is ischemic stroke, when a blockage in the brain or in the neck starves the brain of blood. The blockage can come from a clot in the brain’s or neck’s blood vessels, movement of a clot from another part of the body to the brain, or severe narrowing of an artery leading to or located within the brain. The lack of circulating blood carrying vital oxygen kills the brain’s cells.
Strokes are not uncommon among Americans; the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) note that stroke is the fifth-most-common cause of death in the country, accounting for 140,000 deaths per year. Many other people, like my mother, survive and must live with the effects of a stroke, some 795,000 each year.
It’s an ominous thought, that at some moment your brain cells may hemorrhage or the brain itself may starve for lack of oxygen. As you get older the chances of a stroke increase. But even younger people may be susceptible to stroke, particularly if other members of their family have had one.
Yet there are certain steps that you can take to prevent a stroke no matter your age or family history. According to the Harvard Medical School, chief among them is making sure that you do not have high blood pressure. High blood pressure can double or even quadruple the risk for stroke in both men and women; treating high blood pressure is critical for preventing a stroke. In order to do so, the Harvard Medical School recommends reducing the salt in your diet to no more than 1,500 milligrams a day (about a half teaspoon); getting at least 30 minutes of exercise each day; and quitting smoking, if you smoke. Another important action you can take to reduce the threat of stroke is to lose weight. Even a loss of ten pounds can have an effect on blood pressure and lessen the risk of diabetes.
An ischemic stroke occurs when a clot blocks blood from flowing throughout the brain. One of the sources of such a clot is the heart. Atrial fibrillation is an irregular and often rapid heart rate, according to the Mayo Clinic. During atrial fibrillation, the heart’s two upper chambers (the atria) beat chaotically and irregularly, out of coordination with the two lower chambers (the ventricles). Symptoms of atrial fibrillation include heart palpitations, shortness of breath and weakness. Blood clots can form in the upper chambers of the heart when the blood moves irregularly; those clots can then travel to the brain, producing a stroke. Atrial fibrillation increases your risk of stroke fivefold and should be treated seriously.
Finally, if you smoke, stop. Smoking thickens the blood and increases the amount of plaque buildup in the arteries thus increasing the risk of clots forming. Even those who don’t smoke but are exposed to secondhand smoke have an increased risk of a stroke. Other lifestyle changes that improve your chances of avoiding a stroke can be found at www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/stroke/symptoms-causes/syc-20350113.
It’s also important to recognize the signs of a stroke. Today there are drugs that, if administered within three hours of an ischemic stroke, can break up the clot and reduce the long-term damage to the brain. So noticing when a stroke may be taking place can be crucial to a person’s recovery.
According to the CDC, if you think someone you know is having a stroke, do the following (FAST):
Face. Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
Arms. Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward? Or is one arm unable to rise up?
Speech. Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is his or her speech slurred or strange?
Time. If you observe any of these signs, call 911 immediately.
Having a stroke destroys not only part of your brain but also the life you have created for yourself. You can’t know the future but you can certainly make an effort to avoid the devastating damage a stroke may cause you and your family.