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May 8, 2017

Stroke: The Misunderstood Danger

by John Hastings

Stroke is common, deadly – and surprisingly misunderstood. It’s the fifth leading cause of death in the United States, and the number-one cause of disability among adults. But people don’t pay the same attention to stroke that they do to, say, heart disease or breast cancer. That’s a problem, says Sonia Henry, MD, a cardiologist at North Shore University Hospital and the Katz Institute for Women’s Health, because most cases can be prevented – if only people understood how to lower their risk. “Stroke is overlooked,” says Dr. Henry. “People really need to be aware of the danger, and that they can do something about it.”

Here are a few facts about stroke that can make a life-or-death difference:

It’s surprisingly easy to protect yourself. A full 80 percent of strokes are preventable, Dr. Henry says – and cutting your risk isn’t complicated. “Stroke has the same risk factors as heart disease,” she says, “so taking steps to prevent one can help you avoid the other.” Particularly helpful: Get your blood pressure checked (high blood pressure is the most common cause of stroke), watch your cholesterol and your weight, and, if you smoke, quit ASAP.

You’re at extra risk if you’re a woman. Stroke kills twice as many women as breast cancer does, Dr. Henry says. In fact, women are at higher risk than men, and strokes tend to be deadlier for women. Part of the reason is that the risk increases with age, and women live longer than men. But other factors also feed into women’s increased vulnerability, such as the fact that certain types of birth control raise stroke risk, especially for smokers. Having high blood pressure during pregnancy worsens a woman’s odds. And women tend to suffer more mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety or high levels of stress – and research suggests that this kind of distress can increase the chance of suffering a stroke.

Youth doesn’t give you a pass. The incidence of stroke jumped by 44 percent among people between the ages of 25 and 44 over the past decade, according to research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Yet young people, in particular, tend not to be aware of signals that a stroke is in progress. “People in their 30s and 40s are suffering strokes, even though it’s much more common in older people,” says Dr. Henry. “So everyone from 20 to 80 needs to be aware that stroke is a possibility.”

Every minute counts. When a stroke blocks blood from the brain, 1.9 million neurons die every minute. Recognizing the symptoms of a stroke can help you or a loved one get prompt treatment, which is critical to preventing long-term damage to speech, memory and even the ability to move. The American Stroke Association came up with the acronym FAST to help you remember what to watch for:

F: facial drooping—a lopsided look to the mouth, or an eyelid that sags

A: arm weakness on one side

S: speech difficulty—slurring words or sounding strange

T: time to call 911 if you observe any of these signs