Health Break | Published May 14, 2014 | Written by Pete Roy, MD, neurology, Mount Nittany Physician Group

Modifiable stroke risks

On average, a stroke occurs every 40 seconds in the United States. Because May is recognized as National Stroke Awareness Month, it’s a great time to learn the risk factors to make the best lifestyle choices to empower you to prevent a stroke.

A stroke occurs when vital blood flow and oxygen to the brain are cut off. Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in America, and can happen to anyone at any time.

When a blood clot blocks an artery, or a blood vessel breaks, blood flow to the brain is interrupted, brain cells begin to die, and brain damage occurs. As brain cells are affected during a stroke, abilities such as speech, movement, and memory can be lost. Stroke patients are affected in different ways, depending on where the stroke occurs in the brain and how much of the brain is damaged.

When someone is having a stroke, time is of the essence. By acting quickly, precious brain cells and lives can be saved.

The acronym FAST can help to recognize the signs of a stroke and remind you to act quickly.

F- Face drooping: does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile.
A- Arm weakness: is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S- Speech difficulty: is speech slurred, are they unable to speak, or are they hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence.
T- Time: If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if they go away, call 911 and get them to the hospital immediately.

Beyond this acronym, you should be aware of sudden numbness or weakness of the leg, sudden confusion or trouble understanding, sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes, sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination, or sudden severe headache with no known cause. Make sure you’re also marking down the time that these symptoms started.

While many risk factors may be beyond your control (such as being over the age of 55), there are lifestyle and medical changes you can make to reduce your risk of stroke. We call these modifiable risk factors.

If you’ve had a previous stroke (including a “mini stroke”), or if you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, atrial fibrillation or carotid artery disease, a healthcare professional may be able to help you control and manage your risk for stroke.

Being overweight, smoking, and drinking too much alcohol can also increase your risk for stroke. It’s important to eat healthily, quit smoking, exercise regularly, and limit alcohol consumption to limit stroke risk.

In addition, there are other risk factors for stroke that are unique to women, which may include the following:

  • Taking birth control pills
  • Being pregnant
  • Using hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
  • Having a waist greater than 35 inches and high triglyceride level
  • Being a migraine headache sufferer

To understand your stroke risk and how you might manage your risk, talk with your physician.

For more information regarding stroke, interested participants can call 814.359.5607 to pre-register for a free stroke event on Wednesday, May 21, from 5:30 to 7:30 pm in the Dreibelbis Auditorium at Mount Nittany Medical Center held in conjunction with HealthSouth Nittany Valley Rehabilitation Hospital.