May is Stroke Awareness Month, an annual effort dedicated to increasing awareness and understanding of this condition. During this month and throughout the year, organizations including the National Stroke Association and American Stroke Association work to educate Americans about ways they may be able to prevent and identify this medical emergency.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stroke is the number four cause of death and leading cause of long-term disability in the U.S., impacting about 800,000 people each year.
Understanding the risk factors and warning signs of stroke can help prevent and aid in seeking effective treatment for this potentially deadly event.
Learning the Risk Factors
While some risk factors for stroke cannot be changed, other risk factors are controllable and can be managed through healthy lifestyle behaviors.
Uncontrollable risk factors include:
- Age – the risk for stroke increases as we get older and is more common in those over 60; however, many strokes, about a third, occur in those under 65.
- Gender –Although stroke affects both genders, stroke affects more women (100,000) than men and kills more women than men per year.
- Race/ethnicity – risk of stroke is higher among African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans than among Caucasians, likely due to the higher incidence of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity among these groups.
- Family history – if someone in the family has had a stroke, it is more likely that you and others in the family will have one.
- Prior cardiovascular event or other condition – A previous stroke, TIA (transient ischemic attack) or heart attack also increases your risk; talk with your doctor to understand how your medical history may impact your risk.
Risk factors that can be controlled or managed include, but are not limited to:
- High blood pressure — your blood pressure (and how high it is) is the leading indicator of your risk for stroke, so controlling it is the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk
- Vascular disease of the carotid arteries, the aorta or legs
- High cholesterol
- Lack of exercise and being overweight/obese, which also contribute to the diseases above
- Atrial fibrillation and heart failure
- Sickle cell disease
- Special risks for women: Migraine with an aura, history of preeclampsia or eclampsia, hormone replacement and birth control pills, autoimmune diseases such as lupus, high blood pressure and having a clotting disorder.
It’s important to talk with your doctor to discuss all your potential risk factors.
What Are the Warning Signs?
When it comes to stroke, acting quickly is crucial to ensure the affected person has the best chance for treatment to prevent further loss of brain function. Warning signs can include the sudden onset of numbness, confusion, trouble seeing, trouble walking or severe headache with no known cause. The nation’s leading stroke awareness organizations recommend learning how to “Act F.A.S.T.” in order to quickly identify and help someone experiencing a stroke:
Face – Ask the person to smile; does it look uneven, or does one side of their face droop?
Arms – Ask the person to raise both arms; does one arm drift downward or seem weak or numb?
Speech – When the person speaks, is their speech slurred or difficult to understand?
Time – If you notice any of the above signs or symptoms, call 911 as soon as they appear. Also note the time the symptoms first appeared as this impacts how the person is treated. Immediate treatment is critical.
For Health Advocate Members
If you’re a Health Advocate member, call your Personal Health Advocate for help making an appointment for you to talk with your doctor about understanding and managing your risk for stroke. Your Personal Health Advocate may also be able provide resources about risk factors for stroke and how to reduce your risk through healthy lifestyle changes.
Other Helpful Resources
To learn more, please visit any of the websites below that provide additional information about stroke: