About 700,000 Americans each year suffer a new or recurrent stroke. That means, on average, a stroke occurs every 45 seconds. The good news is you are never too young or too old to reduce your risk for stroke.
Stroke is a type of cardiovascular disease. It affects the arteries leading to and within the brain. A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain either bursts or is blocked by a clot. When a stroke occurs, part of the brain cannot get the blood and oxygen it needs, so it starts to die.
The most common type of stroke is the ischemic stroke. It occurs as a result of a blockage within a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain. The blockage is usually a result of fatty deposits lining the blood vessel walls, a condition called atherosclerosis.
These fatty deposits can cause two types of obstruction: a blood clot that develops at the clogged part of the blood vessel (cerebral thrombosis) or a blood clot that forms at another location, usually the heart or large arteries of the chest and neck (cerebral embolism).
Another type of stroke is referred to as the hemorrhagic stroke and accounts for approximately 17 percent of stroke cases. It results from a weakened blood vessel that ruptures and bleeds into the surrounding brain.
Transient ischemic attacks, commonly referred to as TIAs, are minor or warning strokes. TIAs produce stroke-like symptoms but no permanent damage. TIAs are strong indicators of a possible major stroke. Recognizing and treating a TIA can reduce your risk of a major stroke.
Immediate treatment for a stroke is crucial. Symptoms, which come on quickly, include:
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden, severe headache with no known cause
- The risk factors for stroke are the same as for heart disease: elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol, tobacco use, physical inactivity, obesity and overweight and diabetes. Certain diseases and conditions may specifically increase your risk of stroke. These include: carotid or other artery disease, atrial fibrillation, coronary heart disease, TIAs, and certain blood disorders.
Stroke can affect anyone at any age. Of every five deaths from stroke, two occur in men and three in women.
Listed here are other risk factors for stroke that are particularly important for women under the age of 55 years:
- Migraines. Recent research suggests that women who suffer from migraines with aura - visual disturbances such as flashing dots or blind spots - can be up to 10 times more likely to suffer a stroke, depending upon other risk factors.
- Birth control pills. Women who take even a low-estrogen birth control pill may be twice as likely to have a stroke than those who don't. This risk may be higher if there are other risk factors.
- Hormone replacement therapy. Women who take HRT may have a slightly increased risk for stroke.
- Autoimmune diseases such as diabetes or lupus can increase the risk of stroke.
- Clotting disorders can increase the risk of stroke. Women who have had more than one miscarriage may be at higher risk for blood clots.
- Remember, risk factors are cumulative. Reducing even one risk can greatly lower your chances of having a stroke. You can reduce your risk of stroke if you want to.
The first step is to work with your healthcare provider to evaluate your risk factors. Next, develop a plan to change those risk factors that are increasing your risk. A healthy lifestyle is up to you.
Lisa Bankard is director of community education and wellness programs at Yampa Valley Medical Center.