Every year, approximately 800,000 people experience a new or recurrent stroke. In fact, it’s the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. Even so, many people don’t know very much about this acute medical condition.
I realized that I was one of “those people” when my dad recently had a stroke. So, I set out to answer my own questions (and in doing so, many others’) about this condition that is having such a profound impact on my own father’s life.
What’s a stroke?
A lot of people mistakenly believe that a stroke occurs in the heart. Actually, it happens in the brain when a clot (ischemic stroke) or a bleed (hemorrhagic stroke) cuts off blood flow to a particular part of this important organ. The resulting deprivation of oxygen causes brain cells to die, causing temporary or permanent loss of abilities controlled by that area of the brain, such as memory, speech and muscle control.
What’s a TIA?
A TIA (transient ischemic attack), sometimes referred to as a “mini-stroke,” happens when blood flow is blocked for only a short period of time. Symptoms resolve quickly, and there’s no permanent brain damage. But despite the seeming lack of severity, a TIA shouldn’t be ignored. About one in three people who have a TIA will go on to have a full-blown stroke. (My father had two TIAs two days in a row before he had an actual stroke on the third day.)
What are the signs?
- B: Do you have a sudden loss of balance?
- E: Have you lost vision in one or both of your eyes?
- F: Are you experiencing numbness or drooping in your face?
- A: Is one arm weak and hanging down?
- S: Are you having difficulty speaking, your speech is slurred or you’re just not making sense?
- T: Time to call 9-1-1!
(In my dad’s case, he felt numbness in his face and his speech was slightly slurred. He also had difficulty getting back in the car because of leg weakness.)
Can I wait to see if my symptoms resolve?
If you suspect you’re having a stroke, it’s important to get help right away. There’s a medication available that may reduce the severity of the stroke and even reverse some of the symptoms; however, the drug must be administered within hours of your first symptom. (Unfortunately, my father was not a candidate.) Plus, if you wait to see if your symptoms go away, the risk of a TIA evolving into a stroke is especially high within the first 48 hours.
How long will it take for me to recover?
Recovery time varies due to the severity of your stroke. The most rapid recovery typically happens within the first several months, but according to the National Stroke Association, “Many stroke survivors continue to improve over a long time, sometimes over a number of years.”
However, your chances of regaining the abilities you’ve lost are significantly increased with a good stroke rehabilitation program, which includes speech, physical, and occupational therapies. (In less two weeks in an onsite stroke rehab program, my father is walking with much less difficulty, is speaking clearly, and is starting to move the hand and arm that were impacted.)
Most importantly, how do I prevent a stroke?
Through a combination of lifestyle changes and medical interventions, you can help prevent strokes, whether it’s your first stroke or a recurrent one (after one stroke, you’re 40 percent more likely to have another stroke within the first five years).
Strokes are hereditary. Here are some ways that I plan to be vigilant (and you can too!):
- Lower blood pressure
- Keep an eye on cholesterol
- Stop smoking
- Manage atrial fibrillation (AFib) and diabetes
- Reduce alcohol consumption
- Exercise and eat healthy foods