Living Well - WMHS Blog

Stroke Awareness Month

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death in the United States as well as a leading cause of disability. Approximately 795,000 people suffer a stroke every year. Here are some other statistics the CDC provides for stroke:

  • One person in 20 dies of a stroke in the United States each year, which amounts to an annual death toll of 140,000 people
  • Of the 795,000 people who experience a stroke each year, approximately 610,000 are those who have never had a stroke in the past
  • Ischemic stroke, in which the stroke victim suffers blocked blood flow to the brain, account for 87 percent of all strokes
  • Of stroke survivors over age 65, half live with a permanent disability for the remainder of their lives
  • African Americans have twice the risk of Caucasians of experiencing a first stroke
  • Approximately one-third of people hospitalized each year for stroke symptoms are under age 65

While these statistics might sound discouraging, stroke is preventable and treatable. During Stroke Awareness Month this May, we encourage everyone to learn the most common signs of a stroke and to call 9-1-1 immediately if you or someone near you appear to have the symptoms.

With a Stroke, Every Minute Counts

The faster someone experiencing a stroke receives treatment, the less likely he or she will die or suffer permanent brain damage. Knowing the symptoms could literally save a life, which could even be your own. The most typical symptoms of stroke include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, leg, or arm, especially when it affects only one half of the body
  • A sudden and severe headache that you or the person near you can’t attribute to another cause
  • Difficulty speaking, understanding speech, or appearing very confused
  • Loss of balance, difficulty walking, lack of coordination, or dizziness
  • Difficulty seeing out of one or both eyes

What each of these symptoms has in common is that they come on suddenly. A person can be laughing and joking one minute and show some or all of these symptoms the next. If you are near someone who appears to be having a stroke, the CDC and the American Stroke Foundation recommend that you follow the F.A.S.T. acronym:

F stands for face: Ask the person if he or she can smile. If responsive, note if one side of the face appears to droop.

A stands for arms: When you ask the person to raise one or both arms, does one of the arms tend to droop downwards?

S stands for speech: If the person can repeat a simple phrase upon command, is it garbled, slurred, or make no sense to you?

T stands for Time: If the person fails to perform any of these three commands properly, call 9-1-1 without delay.

It’s also important to jot down the time when the person first started experiencing symptoms. This helps the healthcare professionals at Western Maryland Health Systems (WMHS) decide on the best treatment protocol for the stroke victim. If you’re the one having a stroke, don’t attempt to drive yourself or allow a friend or family member to drive you. Call 9-1-1. The paramedics have life-saving equipment that they can start using even before you arrive at the hospital.

The Three Main Types of Strokes

As mentioned above, 87 percent of strokes are ischemic strokes. These occur when the blood that flows through arteries to the brain encounters some type of blockage. Blood clots are the leading cause of ischemic stroke.

A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when an artery within the brain ruptures or breaks open. This causes a build-up of pressure on brain cells, which can cause death or permanent damage. A person experiencing this type of stroke may have an intracerebral hemorrhage, which means that an artery in the brain has burst. He or she may also have a subarachnoid hemorrhage, which means bleeding is present between the brain and the thin tissues that help to protect it.

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is one that lasts for a much shorter duration than a major stroke. It’s typically less than five minutes, but it still requires emergency treatment. There is no way to know from the symptoms if the person is having an ischemic stroke, hemorrhagic stroke, or a TIA. It’s also important to take a TIA seriously as a warning sign of a possible major stroke in the future. At least one-third of people who have a TIA and receive no treatment for it have a major stroke within one year.

Stroke Risk Factors and Prevention

Some risk factors of stroke you can’t control, including your family history, age, gender, and race. A family history of stroke and certain genetic diseases, including sickle cell disease, increase the likelihood of having one yourself. It’s also more common in men, people over age 55, and people of African American descent. Certain health conditions increase the likelihood you will experience a stroke, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Taking steps to manage those diseases will reduce your likelihood of a stroke, as will changing these lifestyle habits:

  • Consuming a diet high in cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat
  • Men who drink more than two alcoholic beverages per day and women who drink more than one increase their triglycerides and blood pressure
  • Not getting enough physical activity increases the likelihood of developing other diseases that can lead to stroke
  • Obesity, defined as a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30, increased bad cholesterol and triglycerides as well as the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure
  • Smoking raises your blood pressure and reduces the amount of oxygen available for your blood to carry

We’re Here to Help

If you have risk factors for stroke or you have already had a stroke, WMHS has resources available to help you. Our staff is prepared to be your biggest cheerleaders as you make the lifestyle changes that reduce your risk of stroke.