Healthy Choices Can Prevent Stroke

May is Stroke Awareness Month

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May is Stroke Awareness Month, and while many families are affected by this potentially fatal event, not many know the startling statistics. Every year, nearly 800,000 strokes occur in the United States, killing nearly 130,000 people. Strokes are also a leading cause of long-term disability. According to The American Stroke Association, stroke is the number four killer of all Americans. Every four minutes someone dies of a stroke.

While strokes can happen to anyone regardless of age, race or sex, older adults, African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives and people living in the southeastern United States have higher stroke prevalence.

A stroke or brain attack, also called cerebrovascular accident, occurs when an artery carrying oxygen-and-nutrientrich blood to the brain is blocked or bursts and the brain cells begin to die. There are two types of stroke. The most common, accounting for about 85 percent, is an ischemic stroke, which is caused by a blocked artery due to plaque inside the vessel or blood clots. Hemorrhagic stroke is caused by a leaking or burst blood vessel resulting from preexisting conditions such as high blood pressure or aneurysms, balloon-like bulges in an artery.

Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), sometimes called “mini-strokes,” occur if blood flow to a portion of the brain is blocked only for a short time and does not cause permanent damage to brain cells. TIAs may indicate an impending significant stroke.

There are numerous risk factors for stroke, divided into two categories: controllable and uncontrollable. Uncontrollable risks include gender, family history and age. Controllable risk factors include high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity and alcohol or drug abuse. The incidence of stroke has decreased as more people have become educated about the importance of maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol.

That is a trend that I hope will continue. One message I impress upon my patients is that when they have their first stroke or heart attack they have significant disease in their blood vessels. So prevention needs to start at the moment of diagnosis. As soon as a patient has his or her blood pressure taken and it’s high or borderline, immediate changes need to be made. The good news is that the changes are all cheap and simple.

I am an advocate of that dreaded word—exercise. Exercise does everything we need to do to prevent strokes and many other maladies. It helps to lose and manage weight. It improves cognition. It strengthens the heart. Exercise, combined with good nutrition and a lowsodium diet, is the key to health.

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