Health Break | Published November 27, 2006 | Written by Kathy Dittmann, RN

Be Aware of Stroke Risks & Warning Signs

Stroke only happens to older people, right? So why should you worry?

The fact is 28 percent of strokes occur in people under 65. Strokes have been known to strike people in their teens and twenties. Each year approximately 600,000 Americans will have a new or recurrent stroke. Every three minutes someone will die from a stroke, making stroke the number three cause of death in America.

The great news is that you can reduce your stroke risk and take steps to prevent a stroke.

What is a stroke?

A stroke is a cardiovascular disease affecting the blood vessels leading to the brain and within the brain. A stroke occurs when a blockage or a rupture of the blood vessel interrupts the blood supply. When this happens, the brain does not receive the oxygen and nutrients that it needs, so it starts to die.

A blocked artery causes an ischemic stroke, which represents 75 percent of all strokes. A hemorrhagic stroke is the result of ruptured blood vessels. Each area of the brain controls a different part of your body, so the part of the brain that is affected will determine what symptoms you will have.

A TIA is a transient (temporary) ischemic attack; it may also be referred to as a mini stroke or a warning stroke. The symptoms are the same as a stroke, but only last for several minutes. A TIA should always be reported to your health-care provider, because people who experience a TIA are nine times more likely to have a stroke.

Stroke risk factors

Stroke risk factors can be divided into three categories:

  1. Risk factors that you can treat or control, which includes:

    • High blood pressure

    • Carotid artery disease

    • Heart disease

    • Diabetes

    • Atrial fibrillation

    • Sickle cell anemia

    • High cholesterol

    • TIAs

  2. Risk factors that you can reduce by changing your lifestyle, such as:

    • Stop smoking

    • Be physically active

    • Control your weight

    • Avoid excessive alcohol use

    • Do not use illegal drugs

  3. Risk factors that you cannot change, such as:

    • Increasing age

    • Being female

    • Being African American

    • Having a history of a prior stroke

If you are at risk for a stroke, you should schedule an appointment with your health-care provider to discuss your risk factors. Then, take the steps that you and your health-care provider have discussed to reduce your risk. You may be able to reduce your stroke risk by as much as 80 percent.

Recognize Warning Signs

You may save your life and reduce long-term disabilities by recognizing stroke warning signs. Warning signs may include, but are not limited to:

  • The sudden onset of severe headache with no known cause

  • Dizziness or loss of balance

  • Difficulty speaking or understanding

  • Trouble seeing

  • Confusion

  • Numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg

Do not ignore the warning signs of a stroke: Even if they go away, call 9-1-1 immediately. Rapid diagnosis and treatment of a stroke increases your chances of survival. Every second counts.

Kathy Dittmann is a registered nurse and the service excellence coordinator at Mount Nittany Medical Center.