A stroke is an attack on the brain. This can happen to anyone, but the risk goes up considerably with age. A stroke happens when blood cannot reach an area of the brain, thus cutting off its oxygen supply. It can also happen when a blood vessel inside the brain ruptures. Brain cells in the affected region die as a result. The cells cannot carry out brain functions anymore, such as muscle control and memory. However, you can prevent a stroke. Before knowing how to do so, first understand the basic facts about stroke. It will help you effectively think about and prevent stroke.
How does a Stroke affect you?
How it affects depends on the brain’s part that is affected and how much of the brain gets damaged. In some instances, it could have a minor effect, like temporary weakness in the leg or arm. But often, the stroke can permanently paralyze one side of the body. More than 50 percent of affected people cannot speak.
- Every year, 800,000 people suffer stroke.
- Someone is having a stroke every 40 seconds.
- Someone dies from stroke every 4 minutes.
- In the United States, stroke is the fifth leading cause of death behind heart disease, chronic lower respiratory illness, accidents, and cancer.
- It is a leading cause of disability among adults.
- 80 percent of all strokes can be prevented. And that’s the good news!
The Three Types of Strokes
There are three types of strokes,
- Ischemic strokes
- Hemorrhagic strokes
- Transient ischemic attacks or mini-strokes
This happens when arteries in the brain that carry blood to this vital organ, becomes narrow or are blocked. This causes ischemia, a condition where the blood flow is severely reduced. It is the most common cause for stroke, accounting for 85 percent of all strokes. Often, the block happens because of fatty deposits inside the arteries. Clot-busting drugs are recommended for treating an Ischemic stroke.
This happens when the arteries burst open or leak blood, which damage the brain cells. The arteries or vessels can spill or burst open close to the brain’s surface or in its center. When this happens, blood spills into the space between the skull and the brain. The spill can happen because of conditions like trauma, hypertension, blood thinning medicines, and when the walls of the vessels are weak. Surgery is often the only remedy. The blocked blood vessel can be repaired surgically.
Transient Ischemic Attacks or (TIA)
This is different than the other types of strokes, as there is just a brief pause in the flow of blood to the brain. However, they happen in the same way as Ischemic strokes. Blood flow is restricted due to a clot. Though the supply is restricted or blocked briefly, but TIAs must also be treated as a medical emergency. It is a warning signal that a more severe attack can happen in the future. It is a signal that an artery is getting blocked or that there is a clot. CDC or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that in more than one-third instances, the person having a TIA suffers a major stroke in less than a year if no treatment is administered. 10 percent people will have a major stroke in less than three months.
Symptoms of Stroke
A stroke can happen suddenly, sometimes without any prior warning. However, there are certain subtle indications. Here are some of the main symptoms:
- Headache with vomiting or altered consciousness
- Confusion that includes troubles with understanding or speaking. Words can become slurry.
- Inability to see with both or one eye. There can be blackened or blurred vision. Sometimes, those having a stroke may also see double.
- Sudden numbness in the leg, arms, or face, especially in one side of the body. Raise both arms above the head at the same time if you see this happening. It can be a stroke if one arm starts to fall.
- One side of the mouth can droop, particularly while smiling
- Lack of co-ordination
- Sudden problems in walking
- Problems with walking. There can also be lack of balance.
There can also be a few other symptoms, such as,
- Persistent depression
- Bowel control or bladder problems
- Pain in the feet and hands that worsens with movement
- Sudden temperature changes
A stroke is a long-term problem, especially if it paralyzes one side of the body. The disability can be permanent. So it is essential to read the early warning signs. But the problem is, these symptoms are not always visible. Sometimes, it is a sudden emergency. Always seek immediate medical attention if you see any of the above symptoms. Early treatment can prevent or restrict brain damage.
Stroke and Aging – What is the Connection?
There is a definite connection between aging and stroke, though stroke can happen at any age. Even young people have been paralyzed by stroke, but many studies have confirmed that the risk more than doubles with each decade, after the age of 55 years. It has been seen that about one in four instances of strokes are among people who are about the age of 65 years, and three quarters of incidents occur beyond this age.
In fact, age is often the biggest risk factor. Since a big portion of population of the world is aging, a lot more people are today at risk of a stroke. For instance, among EU nation countries, Italy has the most people above 65. The country reports 153,000 new stroke cases every year, the highest in Europe. This is expected to go up to 195,000 by 2020.
Stroke, Aging, and the Human Brain
The brain changes as we age, and this increases the chances of a stroke.
A few studies have discovered that the brain weight goes down by 0.1 percent every year between 20-60 years. After 60, the weight loss is rapid. Most of this loss is in the hippo-campus and cerebral cortex. MRI studies have revealed that brain volume also decreases with age. In people above 70 years, the volume loss can be more than 0.5 percent yearly.
We do not yet understand fully how changes in the brain with aging causes stroke. Researchers are currently conducting experiments on old rats and mice to have better understanding. Early reports indicate that it could be something to do with calcium, ischemic injuries and vascular insufficiency. So there could be multiple causes of stroke due to aging.
Poor Sleep Can Also Increase the Risk for Seniors
Researchers have discovered that people who have disturbed sleep are more at risk of a stroke because if you wake up a lot, then the arteries in the brain can harden. Seniors often have problems in sleeping throughout the night without waking up.
A study carried out by New York’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center found that repeated arousals can increase the chance of stroke by 27 percent among the aged. This was concluded after carrying out tests on 315 people.
Dr. Richard Libman from neurology at Long Island Jewish Medical Center says, “There appears to be a clear association between poor sleep and hardening of the arteries and risk of stroke among the seniors”.
It Could Be Changing
But there are clear signs that age may not be that important a factor anymore, at least, its significance could be decreasing.
- A study carried out among people aged 65 years or more between 1988 and 2008 reveals a 40 percent drop in stroke. This was a surprise discovery.
- Medications and lifestyle changes seem to be the biggest changers.
- The study was carried out by the researchers at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine.
- The report has been published in The American Journal of Medicine, July issue.
How to Prevent a Stroke
The good news is, the risk of a stroke can be minimized to a great extent, usually with lifestyle modifications.
Though recent trends indicate that age may not be that important a factor any more, but it is still relevant. A family history of stroke can also increase the risk. Of course, you cannot reverse age or change your family history.
But there are certain things to do to reduce the risk and prevent a stroke.
Deal with Medical Risk Factors
There are a few medical risk factors that sometimes cause a stroke. Treating them will reduce the risk. Sometimes there is a combination of factors that heighten the risk. You should be particularly careful if you have a history of stroke in the family.
1. Bring Dow/n High Blood Pressure
This is a huge factor. In fact, high blood pressure is the biggest risk that might lead to stroke. Uncontrolled blood pressure doubles the risk of a stroke in both men and women.
When your blood pressure is high, your heart will have to pump higher to move blood throughout your body. The blood vessels can weaken as a result. Major organs like the brain, for example, can also get damaged.
So check regularly and take medication if your blood pressure is high. Ideally the pressure should be 120/80.
- Stay away from high cholesterol foods like cheese, ice cream and burgers.
- Reduce the intake of salt. Limit it to 1,500 milligrams or half teaspoon in a day.
- Take 4 t0 5 cups of vegetables and fruits daily.
- Eat fish 2-3 times in a week.
- Low-fat dairy and whole grains are good too.
- Exercise every day for at least half an hour.
- Quit smoking.
- If needed, take medicines to lower your blood pressure.
2. Treat Diabetes
Diabetes is another serious condition that can increase the risk of stroke. Those who have diabetes have a four times higher risk of stroke because those with this condition are also likely to have other risk factors like high cholesterol, blood pressure, and atrial fibrillation. High blood sugar can damage the blood vessels, and when this happens, clots can get formed within the vessels. So it is essential to control the blood sugar level.
- Monitor the blood sugar level.
- Lose weight if you are carrying a few excess pounds.
- Take insulin shots and oral medications, whatever is prescribed by your doctor.
- Exercise regularly.
- Eat the right foods, and refrain from taking sugary substances.
3. Treat Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation or AFib is a condition where your heartbeat is irregular. The condition is more common in those who are 65 years of age or older and those with a heart condition, diabetes or high blood pressure. However, younger people can also have it. Clots can form in the heart because of the irregular heartbeat, and these clots can travel all the way to your brain, causing the stroke. If left untreated, AFib can also cause heart failure. So the condition should never be ignored.
- See a doctor immediately if you have heart palpitations or have shortness of breath. You should get yourself checked.
- Blood thinner medications may be recommended to bring down the risk of stroke.
- The doctor may also recommend electrical stimulation.
4. Cure Carotid Arteries
Also referred to as carotid artery stenosis, this is a condition where the carotid arteries become narrow. These arteries are important blood vessels located in your neck that bring blood to your brain. They can get narrow because of unhealthy lifestyle, advancing age, and high cholesterol levels. Sometimes, there may be no symptoms at all.
- Surgery is one treatment option.
- Your doctor may recommend Carotid Endarterectomy if the block is more than 50 percent, Carotid Artery Angioplasty, or Stenting.
- Blood thinning medicines may also work sometimes.
- Lose weight and lead a healthier lifestyle.
5. Pay attention to Circulation Problems
Circulation refers to the movement of blood through your blood and heart vessels. Atherosclerosis can be a major circulation issue. Here, fat gets deposited in the arteries, thus making them harder. Plus, there is also cholesterol plaque buildup. Atherosclerosis will progressively clog the arteries and when this happens, blood cannot flow to the brain smoothly. This increases the risk of heart disease, TIA or Transient Ischemic Attack, and stroke.
- A doctor can recommend medications to treat the condition and reduce the risks.
- Surgery is an option if medicines don’t work.
- Lose weight. Fat deposition can clog the arteries.
6. Reduce High Cholesterol
High level of cholesterol is another risk factor. You can bring down the risk of a stroke considerably by reducing its level. Try to keep it within 200.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that can get deposited in the arteries, thus blocking or reducing the normal flow of blood to your brain, causing the stroke. The risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease will also go up if you have high cholesterol. Your body makes cholesterol, and you will also get it from the foods you eat. At least, try to control its intake by changing your diet.
- Omega-3 fatty acid supplements, and certain medicines can control the level of cholesterol in the body.
- Lose weight. Physical activity is going to help you.
- Quit smoking.
- Doctors and health professionals recommend a heart friendly eating plan.
7. Don’t ignore Migraine
Migraines are severe headaches that sometimes come with blind spots and flashes of light. It can be very severe at times. Migraines have been linked to higher risk of stroke, particularly in women because of frequent hormonal fluctuations in the body.
- Ask your doctor about the drugs that can provide relief from the pain.
- Acupuncture or an ice pack may also help.
- Try to relax and stay away from stress.
8. Address Palpitations
Do not ignore palpitations, more so if they occur with chest pain, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath. These are all signs that something could be wrong. Frequent palpitations could cause stroke.
- Stress and anxiety can cause palpitations. Relax as much as you can. Try aromatherapy or yoga.
- Limit or stay away from stimulants like nicotine, alcohol and caffeine.
- Medicines that work like stimulants like cold and cough drugs and also some nutritional and herbal supplements can cause palpitations.
- Stay away from illegal drugs like amphetamines and cocaine.
Lifestyle Risk Factors
This refers to your daily behaviors and habits. Many of us lead a lifestyle that is not quite healthy, and there will naturally be a price to pay. Make the necessary modifications to prevent a stroke. Your overall health will also improve.
9. Lose Weight
Obesity causes a number of health problems such as diabetes, and high blood pressure among others. It enhances the risk of stroke. So try and lose weight if you are carrying extra pounds at this time. Exercise is good because it will generally improve your health apart from helping you shed those extra pounds.
According to a recent study, rarely do people who work out five times or more in a week have a stroke. In fact, you will bring down the risk considerably if you can lose even 10 pounds. For best results, try to keep your Body Mass Index or BMI around 25 or less.
- Exercise five days in a week – moderate intensity.
- It should make you breathe hard, but you should still be able to talk.
- It’s OK if you cannot join a health class. You can walk or run around the neighborhood, or play tennis for an hour.
- You can also try swimming.
- Make it fun. You can also join a dance class. Dancing is a good exercise.
- Mix it up. Walk one day. Run the next. Swim on the third day to keep it interesting.
- Avoid the elevator. Take the stairs instead.
10. Change Your Diet Regimen
Diet plays a key role too, because many of us consume the wrong foods and it increases the risk of a stroke needlessly. Oily and greasy foods make us obese, increase the level of cholesterol, and bring down the overall health. It can also give you diabetes, which will also increase the risk of a stroke.
You have to balance the calories. Try to restrict the calorie intake to 1,500-2,000 in a day, depending on the current BMI and your activity level.
- Limit the intake of fried and junk foods, even ice cream, and cookies.
- Eat seafood instead of eggs, poultry and red meet. Don’t fry them though.
- Limit intake of refined grains, added sugars, solid fats, and sodium.
- Eat fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, beans, and nuts.
- Calculate the total number of calories you are adding daily, and make it a point to lose them every day through exercise.
11. Be a Moderate Drinker
Yes, it’s true – a little bit of drinking can actually reduce the risk of a stroke. But make sure that you limit it to just a single drink in a day. At the most two! Anything more will enhance the risk sharply, because you will then put on weight. Your blood pressure may also increase. So drink at your own risk.
- Red wine should be the first choice as it contains resveratrol that many believe, protects the brain and heart.
- Watch the portion. Have a glass of wine of 5 ounces, 1.5 ounce of hard liquor, or 12 ounce beer.
12. Quit Smoking
Smoking is bad for your lungs. Plus, it will also accelerate the formation of clots in different ways. Your blood thickens when you smoke, and this increases plaque buildup in your arteries, which increases the risk of a stroke. So by quitting smoking, you will be reducing the risk of stroke considerably. In fact, smokers are twice more likely to have it as compared to nonsmokers.
- Try quit-smoking aids like nicotine patches.
- There are some medicines too that can help.
- Join a group of nonsmokers to stay inspired. It can be difficult for those who have been smoking for several years but as they say, nothing’s impossible.
13. Think about your Length of Sleep
How long should you sleep in a day? Researchers at Harvard University are saying that 7 hours should be enough. They have discovered that those who sleep for close to 10 hours a day have a 63 percent higher chance of a stroke than people who sleep less, but not less than 7 hours. There is also bad news for snorers. People who are loud in bed are twice more likely to have a metabolic syndrome, which raises the risk of diabetes, heart attack, and a stroke.
14. Use Olive Oil
Use olive oil everywhere – for baking, frying, sautéing, and drizzling. The oil is good for the heart, but new research carried out in France shows that it could also help in preventing a stroke. The French researchers did this study among 7,600 people in the country aged 65 years or more, and found that people who used olive oil regularly had a 40 percent lower chance of stroke.
15. Stay Happy
We know already that depression affects the body negatively in various ways. It triggers chemical reactions in the brain and ends up affecting many bodily functions. It now appears that depression may cause stroke too, because many people end up smoking more, exercising less, and eating the wrong foods. Depression may also disturb sleep and make you eat more food (binge eating) than what your body needs. Many of them will not even take medicines because of the state of their mind.
Some researchers claim that people who are depressed and sad have a 29 percent higher chance of a stroke.
A stroke is a very serious medical condition. In the United States alone, there are 140,000 deaths every year from this. By 2030, it could be the second highest cause of death all over the world. But that is just part of the story. A stroke can cause long-term disability, which is also frightening enough.
So it’s a very serious issue. Take action today. Treat the medical conditions that enhance the risk of stroke. Make lifestyle modifications to stay healthier. You will be able to reduce the risk of a stroke substantially. All these will sure prevent a stroke and keep you healthy as long as you live.