Stroke—knowing risk factors can save a life

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Exactly one year ago today, I arrived home from work to find my husband, Jerry, sprawled on the bathroom floor, too dizzy to lift his head and weak from vomiting. He was too woozy to get to a phone and had been lying there helpless for about three hours. He was rushed to the emergency room, diagnosed with vertigo and sent home.

The next day, with no improvement in his symptoms, we returned to the hospital and Jerry was correctly diagnosed with a stroke in the cerebellum, near the back of the skull, where sensory information passes through the spinal cord to coordinate muscle action and control, fine movement, coordination and balance.

The past 12 months have been filled with medical appointments and physical, occupational and speech therapy sessions. For the first time in 41 years, we exceeded our health insurance's catastrophic limit. An amazing team has helped Jerry to make tremendous strides, but he still walks slowly with a cane and routine activities take much longer. Fortunately, his intellect and sense of humor are intact.

Our family has learned that anyone can have a stroke, regardless of age, race or gender.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 795,000 strokes annually. Strokes kill almost 130,000 Americans each year--that's one out of every 19 deaths. On average, one American dies from a stroke every four minutes; 60 percent are women and 40 percent are men.

Nearly three-quarters of all strokes occur in people over the age of 65 -- 10 percent to 15 percent affect people age 45 and younger. However, the CDC reports a steep increase in strokes among people in their 30s and 40s. A rise in risk factors -- obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and sleep apnea -- and improved diagnosis account for this upturn.

The good news is that up to 80 percent of strokes can be prevented, and the best way to protect yourself and loved ones from stroke is to understand personal risk and how to manage it.

According to the American Stroke Association, there are two types of risk factors: controllable and uncontrollable.

Controllable risk factors generally fall into two categories: lifestyle risk factors or medical risk factors. Lifestyle risk factors can often be changed, while medical risk factors can usually be treated with diet and medication. These conditions include high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, high cholesterol, circulation problems, tobacco use, alcohol consumption, physical inactivity and obesity.

Uncontrollable risk factors include being over age 55 and gender - more men have strokes, but more women die from them. Other risk elements include being African-American, Hispanic or Asian-Pacific Islander, or having a family history of stroke or transient ischemic attack. TIAs are often referred to as mini-strokes or warning strokes that produce similar symptoms but no lasting damage.

Sudden symptoms characterize a stroke. FAST is an easy way to remember these signs:

Face - Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the person's smile uneven?

Arms - Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

Speech - Is speech slurred? Is the person unable to speak or hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like "The sky is blue." Is the sentence repeated correctly?

Time - Every second counts when a stroke occurs. If someone shows any of these symptoms, even if they go away, call 911 and get the person to the hospital immediately. Check the time so you'll know when the first symptoms appeared.

Other symptoms that may occur include numbness or weakness of the leg, arm or face; confusion, difficulty speaking or trouble understanding; trouble seeing in one or both eyes; trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination and severe headache with no known cause.

The journey continues - Jerry has lost 60 pounds, follows a specific schedule of exercise and therapy, doesn't drink alcohol anymore and takes medication to control his blood pressure and cholesterol. There's a 40 percent chance that he could have another stroke within five years, but he's doing everything in his power to stay healthy and strong.