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In the medical field, they are known as cerebrovascular accidents (CVA), but most people know them by their common name, strokes.

Strokes are the fifth leading cause of death for Americans, as they kill more than 130,000 Americans each year (1 out of every 20 deaths). More than 6 times as many people actually have strokes in the United States each year (around 800,000), and of those people, around 600,000 of them are first or new strokes.

The majority of people who have a stroke do not die from it, but it is the leading cause of long-term disability in the United States, and accounts for $33 billion in health care costs each year.

Nearly 9 out of 10 strokes are basically heart attacks that happen in the brain. Blood flow to a certain area of the brain is interrupted or severely reduced, depriving brain tissue of oxygen and nutrients. Within minutes, that brain tissue begins to die. This is exactly what happens to your heart during a heart attack, and it is known as an ischemic stroke.

There is another type of stroke (approximately 13% of all strokes), known as a hemorrhagic stroke, which occurs when a weakened blood vessel ruptures. The blood accumulates and compresses the surrounding brain tissue. We will take a look at these types of strokes in a future blog, because treatment for them is different and although they are still known as strokes, they are quite different from ischemic strokes.

Last week we talked about the cholesterol connection with heart attacks, but this week, it’s important that we also make that connection with ischemic strokes. When you have high cholesterol, which leads to plaque buildup, your chance for having a stroke is much higher than someone with low cholesterol levels. That’s because if a plaque breaks open, a blood clot may form on top of the buildup, further blocking blood flow. Or, a blood clot can break off and flow to an artery in another part of the body.

Other risks factors that you have some control over and can change include high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity, and obesity. Making healthy choices today is the best decision you can make to keep your brain sharp as you get older and decrease your chance for having a stroke.

Another risk factor that increases your chance for having a stroke is a heart rhythm known as atrial fibrillation. When your heart is in this rhythm, the heart’s upper chambers quiver instead of beating effectively, which can let the blood pool and clot. If a clot breaks off, enters the bloodstream and lodges in an artery leading to the brain, a stroke results (American Heart Association, 2017).

When someone has a stroke, the first initial symptoms include:
• Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
• Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or difficulty understanding speech
• Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
• Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or lack of coordination
• Sudden severe headache with no known cause

According to the CDC (2017), acting F.A.S.T. can help stroke patients get the treatments they desperately need. The stroke treatments that work best are available only if the stroke is recognized and diagnosed within 3 hours of the first symptoms. Stroke patients may not be eligible for these if they don’t arrive at the hospital in time.

If you think someone may be having a stroke, act F.A.S.T. and do the following simple test:
• F—Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
• A—Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
• S—Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is the speech slurred or strange?
• T—Time: If you see any of these signs, call 9-1-1 right away.

Now the thing about strokes that we must all learn about and share is that TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE. Immediate treatment can lessen brain tissue damage and give someone the chance at a full recovery.

If you get to the hospital within 3 hours of the first symptoms of an ischemic stroke, you may get a type of medicine called a thrombolytic (a “clot-busting” drug) to break up blood clots. Tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) is a thrombolytic and it improves the chances of recovering from a stroke. Studies show that patients with ischemic strokes who receive tPA are more likely to recover fully or have less disability than patients who do not receive the drug (CDC, 2017).

Not all people are candidates for receiving tPA, but the majority are, as long as they are within the 3 hour window. That is why it is so important to seek medical attention immediately at the very first sign of a stroke.

Let’s all take the time to learn more about the signs and symptoms of strokes, what we can do to lower our risk factors, and what we need to do in when we do suspect a stroke is taking place.