Stroke is a leading cause of death in the United States. It is also a leading cause of adult disability. Although more strokes occur in the elderly, stroke is also a major cause of disability and death among middle-aged people.
Strokes occur when something interferes with the normal flow of blood to the central nervous system:
Ischemic strokes are caused by blood clots or cholesterol plaques that block the flow of blood through arteries.
Hemorrhages occur when arteries burst inside of, or on, the brain surface.
When blood flow is interrupted, the brain doesn't get the oxygen and nutrients it needs, and cells begin to die. Relatively few brain cells will be affected if the interruption is brief, and the person may recover fully. Otherwise, the damage may vary in the degree of severity and can be permanent.
The part of the brain that's damaged depends on the location of the stroke. Areas commonly affected include those that involve sensory perceptions, movement, memory, thought patterns, or behavior, and the ability to talk or understand speech.
Treatment for stroke victims includes medication, surgery, hospital care, and rehabilitation. If someone with a stroke goes to the hospital early enough, clot dissolving medication — called a thrombolytic, such as tPA — can be given right away, or up to 3 to 4.5 hours after the onset of symptoms.
Anyone having a stroke should seek medical attention immediately. These are warning signs:
Sudden weakness or numbness of the face, arm, or leg on one side of the body
Sudden dimness or loss of vision, particularly in only 1 eye
Loss of speech or trouble talking or understanding speech
Sudden, severe headaches with no known cause
Unexplained dizziness, unsteadiness or sudden falls, especially combined with any other symptom
Strokes can happen to anyone. You may prevent a stroke by taking the following actions:
Control your blood pressure. High blood pressure (over 140/90) is the biggest risk factor for stroke.
Don't smoke. Chemicals in tobacco raise your blood pressure, reduce the amount of oxygen your blood carries to your brain, make blood thicker and stickier, and promote clotting.
Control your cholesterol. High LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels damage your arteries and promote the formation of plaque.
Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight increases your risk for high blood pressure.
Be physically active. Getting regular aerobic exercise helps overall cardiovascular health.
Eat a balanced diet, including plenty of fruits and vegetables. Some fad diets may be unhealthy if they promote too much fat or salt.
Control diabetes. People with the disease are more likely to have strokes.
Take little strokes seriously. A small clot will sometimes clog an artery briefly, causing temporary weakness, dizziness, or other symptoms. These transient ischemic attacks often precede a major stroke.
Follow your health care provider's advice for treatment of heart disease, including coronary artery blockage and abnormal rhythms like atrial fibrillation.
Find out from your health care provider if you need to have your carotid arteries — the arteries in the neck that supply blood to the brain — checked for blockage, particularly if you have risk factors or are planning to have surgery.