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Just as a "heart attack" starves heart cells of needed oxygen, a stroke — or "brain attack" — cuts off the supply of life-giving oxygen to brain cells, resulting in severe disability and sometimes death. But despite its devastating effects, strokes can be prevented and with new medical developments, can be more easily treated.

Animation courtesy of the American Stroke Association, a division of the American Heart Association.
Used with permission.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States and often result in permanent disability.

  • About 600,000 new strokes are reported in the US each year.

  • Every 45 seconds an American has a stroke.

  • An American dies every 3.3 minutes from a stroke.

  • Most stroke victims fail to seek care quickly enough to benefit from the newest therapy.

Know the warning signs — and call 911 immediately.

The good news about stroke is that it is often preventable — and even if you experience stroke symptoms there are many new treatments available that can minimize disability. It is important to know your risk factors for stroke — and try to minimize them.

And know the signs and symptoms of a stroke — or "brain attack" — and get help quickly if you experience any of them. Getting treatment within 60 minutes of the first signs of a stroke can prevent long-term disability.

Common Warning Signs

    The 5 most common warning signs of a stroke are:

    1. Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg especially on one side of the body.

    2. Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.

    3. Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.

    4. Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.

    5. Sudden severe headache with no known cause.

    If you have any of these warning signs, call 911 immediately.

What is a Stroke?

    There are two kinds of stroke.

    • The most common, which is 80 percent of all strokes, is caused by a blood clot in the brain that blocks a vessel or artery. This is known as an ischemic stroke.

    • Twenty percent of strokes are hemorrhagic stroke, which involves a blood vessel that breaks and bleeds into the brain.

    Both kinds of stroke cut off blood supply to certain parts of the brain. When this happens, brain cells in that area are deprived of oxygen and nutrients and they begin to die. Brain cells cannot replace themselves so damage is permanent.

    Some effects from a stroke may include weakness and paralysis on one or both sides of the body, problems with speaking and thinking and emotional problems.

Preventing Stroke

    Some people are more at risk for stroke than others. You are at risk if you:

    • Have high blood pressure. A blood pressure reading greater than 140 over 90 is considered high. Blood pressure between 120-139 over 80-89 is considered "prehypertension" and should be watched carefully. Be sure to have your blood pressure checked regularly.

    • Have diabetes. People with diabetes should follow treatment and make every effort to control blood sugar. Everyone should have his or her blood sugar checked regularly. Diabetes is defined as a fasting blood sugar level of 126 mg/dL or more measured on two occasions.

    • Smoke. The nicotine and carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke reduce the amount of oxygen in your blood. They also damage the walls of blood vessels, making clots more likely to form. Using some kinds of birth control pills combined with smoking cigarettes greatly increases stroke risk.

    • Are overweight. Being obese, which usually also means being physically inactive, can increase your risk of high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Try to get a total of at least 30 minutes of activity on most or all days and eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.

    • Drink excessively. Drinking an average of more than one alcoholic drink a day for women or more than two drinks a day for men can raise blood pressure and may increase risk for stroke.

    • Use illegal drugs. Intravenous drug abuse carries a high risk of stroke. Cocaine use has been linked to strokes and heart attacks. Some have been fatal even in first-time users.

    • Have heart disease or other artery disease:

      • People with coronary heart disease or heart failure have a higher risk of stroke than those with hearts that work normally. Heart rhythm disorders such as very rapid heart beat, or atrial fibrillation, raise the risk for stroke. The heart's upper chambers quiver instead of beating effectively, which can let blood pool and clot. If you have any heart problems, make sure you follow your physician's recommendations for treatment.

      • The carotid arteries in your neck supply blood to your brain. A carotid artery narrowed by fatty deposits from atherosclerosis (plaque buildups in artery walls) may become blocked by a blood clot. Carotid artery disease is also called carotid artery stenosis. This disease can be diagnosed with simple tests and should be treated before it can result in a stroke.

    There are some risk factors that you cannot control but you should be aware of.

    • Heredity (family history) and race — Your stroke risk is greater if a parent, grandparent, sister or brother has had a stroke. African Americans have a much higher risk of death from a stroke than Caucasians do. This is partly because blacks have higher risks of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.

    • Prior stroke or heart attack — Someone who has had a stroke is at much higher risk of having another one. If you've had a heart attack, you're at higher risk of having a stroke, too.

Sources: American Stroke Association and National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke.

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