Health Library







Categories > Stroke >

Stroke: The other cardiovascular killer
What is a stroke?
Who is at risk?


Warning! Stroke in progress
Warning! Stroke in progress

If you or someone you’re with experiences any of the following warning signs of stroke, get immediate medical attention:

  • sudden weakness in an arm, a hand or a leg
  • sudden blindness or blurred vision in one eye
  • inability to comprehend what others are saying
  • sudden excruciating headache
  • sudden difficulty talking
  • numbness on one side of the face or body
  • sudden dizziness or loss of balance

Some 700,000 Americans suffer a stroke each year, and more than 150,000 of these people die. Yet these gloomy statistics would surely improve if people only knew more about the prevention and warning signs of stroke.

Surveys by the American Heart Association reveal that many people can’t name even one warning sign of stroke. That’s unfortunate because studies show there’s a six-hour “therapeutic window” during which permanent brain damage may be largely or even totally avoided with proper diagnosis and treatment.

What is a stroke?

Stroke is the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. An ischemic stroke occurs when an artery to the brain is blocked or ruptures, depriving brain cells of vital oxygen and nutrients. In a hemorrhagic stroke, a blood vessel inside the brain bursts. Either way, brain cells suffer severe injury and begin dying within minutes, sometimes causing permanent damage.

Who is at risk?

No one is completely safe from stroke. Certain risk factors are uncontrollable, such as aging or a family history of stroke. Others can be controlled, such as being overweight or having high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol. Regardless, you can dramatically reduce your stroke risk:

  • Have regular checkups. Some major risk factors for stroke—high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes—often don’t have symptoms in their early stages. That’s why all adults should have regular screenings to detect these risks while they’re still treatable.
  • Lower your blood pressure. High blood pressure (hypertension) contributes to strokes by causing atherosclerosis, or narrowed arteries caused by plaque buildup, and by weakening blood vessels. If your blood pressure reading exceeds 120/80 mm Hg, your doctor may prescribe blood pressure medication and lifestyle changes such as weight loss, a low-fat, low-salt diet and regular exercise.
  • Follow your prescribed treatment. Atherosclerosis patients who follow their doctors’ advice about lifestyle changes and take their medications as directed will likely reduce their risk of stroke as well as heart attack.
  • If you have diabetes, control it. Uncontrolled blood sugar can elevate triglycerides and reduce HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Diabetics have up to four times the risk of coronary artery disease and stroke as nondiabetics. Unfortunately, many people with diabetes don’t know they have it. If you’re over 40, ask your doctor about a diabetes screening.
  • Stop smoking. In one study, men who smoked more than two packs of cigarettes a day had twice the stroke risk of men who smoked fewer than 10 cigarettes a day. It’s never too late to quit: Between two and five years after quitting, an ex-smoker’s risk of stroke declines to the same level as a person who never smoked.