Take the Road to Stroke Health
By Carole Thomas, MD, Neurologist
You’ve probably spent a lot of time planning for the future—what job you’ll have, where you will live, the type of person you may marry. One life event you never plan for is a stroke.
The good news is, you can lower your risk of death or disability from a stroke by controlling your risk factors and knowing the signs of a “brain attack” so you can seek immediate medical attention.
Can I Have a Stroke?
A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked. Starved of oxygen, millions of brain cells die off within minutes.
While most people who have a stroke are older than 60, children and young adults can have one as well. Men initially have a higher risk of stroke, but the rates for both genders evens out by about age 70.
Women have their own set of unique risks. These include taking certain types of birth control and smoking, or having gestational diabetes.
Other risk factors for stroke include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- High cholesterol
- Atrial fibrillation (a type of irregular heart beat)
- Family history
- Previous transient ischemic attacks (TIAs)
TIAs should not be minimized. Symptoms can last up to 24 hours, but usually less than an hour. Many people don’t see it as a warning sign because they got better. However, people who have a TIA are at increased risk of having a more severe stroke within two weeks.
COVID-19, while primarily a respiratory illness, also has been found to cause blood clots that may lead to a stroke.
If your brain is not receiving enough oxygen, you may experience sudden:
- Weakness or numbness of the face, arm or legs, especially on one side of the body
- Confusion, slurred speech, or difficulty understanding words
- Trouble seeing in one eye or both eyes, or double vision
- Dizziness or loss of balance
- Severe headache, with no known cause, like the worst “ice cream headache” you’ve ever had
If you experience any of these symptoms, call 911 for an ambulance.
Your Blueprint for Better Health
Many strokes may be prevented by following a healthy lifestyle. The first step to a successful defense, however, is going to the doctor for regular checkups.
This is especially true for men. Women go to their OB/GYN and have their blood pressure checked. A lot of men don’t go to the doctor because they feel fine. It’s important to get regular blood pressure and cholesterol checks to make sure you don’t have diabetes.
To lessen your chances of having a stroke:
- Don’t smoke or vape.
- Eat a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Limit saturated fats, sodium, processed foods, and added sugars.
- Do aerobic exercise 30 to 40 minutes a day, three or four times a week.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Drink alcohol in moderation.
- Know your family history, especially if a family member had a stroke younger than age 65.
It’s never too late to lower your stroke risk. Talk to your doctor and get started.
Rapidly Improving Stroke Care
The Penn Medicine Virtua Health stroke team use the latest imaging and interventional procedures to treat your stroke. Click here to learn more.
Updated November 12, 2020