Strokes are preventable and treatable if you get help immediately. Strokes happen when some brain cells die because the oxygen and nutrients they need to function are blocked. The blockage can be caused by a clot (ischemic stroke), or when a blood vessel bursts causing bleeding in the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). Within minutes, brain cells begin to die.

Prompt medical treatment can stop the death of brain cells, thus preventing permanent disability. Strokes are the leading cause of long-term disability.

Every four minutes someone dies of a stroke. They’re the fourth leading cause of death in Arkansas as well as the United States. Among women, strokes are the third leading cause of death.

Certain risk factors for stroke cannot be changed—age, gender, race and family history of stroke. However, here are six key risk factors for stroke that YOU can control, with the help of your doctor. Most (80%) of strokes can be prevented by controlling or treating these risk factors:

1. Control high blood pressure (hypertension)

Hypertension is the most dangerous risk factor for stroke, causing at least half of all strokes. Some people have reduced or eliminated their blood pressure (BP) medications by adopting the lifestyle changes listed below. However, never stop taking your medications without your doctor’s approval. Lowering your BP can also help you avoid heart disease and diabetes, two other risk factors for stroke.

Make these lifestyle changes to keep your BP under control:

  • Take blood-pressure-lowering drug(s) exactly as your doctor directs.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Track your height and weight on a BMI chart.
  • Avoid drugs known to raise blood pressure – caffeine and energy drinks, hormonal birth control, decongestants, pain killers (Aleve, Advil, Motrin, Feldene), stimulants, some antidepressants, amphetamines, steroids or cocaine.
  • Avoid added salt and salty foods including “junk food” and processed meats (bacon, ham, cold cuts, canned meat, pizza, canned pasta dishes).
  • Eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to improve heart function, lower weight, improve cholesterol and reduce inflammation.
  • Make regular exercise a part of your daily routine. If you’ve been inactive, get your doctor’s approval first. Start slow and increase to at least 30 minutes a day, six days a week. Exercise breaks of 10 minutes at a time are fine if your total is at least 30 minutes a day.

 2. Quit smoking

Smoking nicotine has been linked to the buildup of fatty substances in the neck’s carotid artery that supplies blood to the brain. Carotid artery blockage is a leading cause of stroke. Nicotine raises blood pressure and makes your blood thicker and more likely to clot. Carbon monoxide from smoking reduces the amount of oxygen that blood can carry to the brain. By quitting, you also reduce your risk of lung disease, some cancers and heart disease.

  • Your doctor can recommend programs and/or medications to help you quit tobacco.
  • This StampOutSmoking link has great quitting tips.
  • Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669) because no one should have to quit smoking alone. Smokers who use quit lines are more successful than those who try to quit alone. A trained quit counselor provides guidance and support 24/7. Free patches, lozenges or gum are also available while supplies last.
  • The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) offers a free seven-week program, Freedom from Smoking.
  • The Northwest Arkansas Tobacco-free Coalition has a list of local resources to help you quit. It includes a timeline showing how your health will improve, from the time you quit up to 15 years tobacco-free.

 3. Prevent heart disease

Heart disease includes coronary artery disease, valve defects, irregular heart beat (atrial fibrillation) and enlargement of the heart. Heart disease can cause blood clots that may break loose and block vessels leading to the brain, causing a stroke. Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) is the most common heart vessel disease. It is caused by fatty deposits in your arteries. Like stroke, the best way to avoid heart disease is to take steps to improve your lifestyle.

4. Control cholesterol

A high LDL cholesterol level in your blood is a major risk factor for stroke and heart disease. Changes in your diet and/or medications can lower the bad cholesterol (LDL) and raise the good cholesterol (HDL). Your total cholesterol is a combination of those two cholesterol levels.

Controlling your cholesterol is more effective if you get regular physical exercise, maintain a healthy weight and avoid excessive alcohol. Excessive means more than two drinks a day for men; one drink a day for women.

5. Prevent or manage diabetes

Diabetes causes destructive changes in blood vessels, including those in the brain. If your blood glucose level is high at the time of a stroke, brain damage is more severe. Keeping blood glucose under control can delay complications from diabetes and reduce your stroke risk.

  • Join a free diabetes education class to learn effective diabetes management skills to reduce your stroke risk. Call toll free 1-877-375-5700, option 2 to register for a free class near you.
  • AFMC has free tools available
  • The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ National Diabetes Education Program (NDEP) is available
  • Read “50 Ways to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes” on the National Diabetes Education Program
  • Screen yourself for diabetes and pre-diabetes with this quick quiz.

6. Pay attention to TIAs

TIAs (transient ischemic attacks) are brief episodes of stroke warning signs that go away after a few minutes. These temporary blockages of blood flow to the brain are important warning signs of possibly having a major stroke in the near future. The symptoms of TIAs – often called warning strokes or mini strokes – are the same as for a major stroke and include:

  • Weakness or numbness in the face, arm or leg and typically on one side of the body; you may notice the mouth is drooping on one side
  • Slurred or garbled speech
  • Difficulty understanding others
  • Blindness or double vision in one or both eyes
  • Dizziness or loss of balance; loss of coordination
  • Sudden, severe headache with no apparent cause
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea or vomiting

These symptoms only last a few minutes with a TIA; however, they last longer with a major stroke. The risk of major stroke is greatly increased in the 30 days following a TIA. But, most people do not have (or cannot recall) TIA symptoms before a major stroke.

Woman may also have hiccups with unusual chest pain and/or numbness over the entire body that may be more severe on one side, according to the National Institutes of Health. Additionally, these unique risk factors can increase women’s stroke risk: pregnancy (especially during the final months and immediately after delivery), using birth-control pills or hormone replacement therapy, lupus and migraine headaches. Women have more strokes than men.

Always tell your doctor about any suspected TIAs. If you have any of these symptoms, do not wait for them to improve or worsen. They could be caused by a major stroke. Call 911 or get immediate medical attention.

How fast you get medical help can make the difference between avoiding a lifelong disability and greatly improving your chances of recovery. There is a very small window for effective stroke treatment. Time lost is brain lost!

More information on strokes available here.