A stroke is a serious and life-threatening event. It occurs when normal blood flow to the brain is compromised which may lead to brain damage, permanent disability, or death if not corrected immediately. Every 40 seconds in the United States someone has a stroke, and every four minutes someone dies because of a stroke. Around the world, stroke is the second leading cause of death, taking about 5.5 million lives annually.
Even with timely treatment, non-fatal strokes may result in long-term health complications including memory loss, vision problems, challenges with speech and language, altered behavior, emotional issues, seizures, or even paralysis.
Someone having a stroke may have one or more symptoms. Most symptoms of a stroke are sudden, prominent, and alarming, but some symptoms may be more subtle and appear less concerning at first.
Classic symptoms of a stroke include the following:
- Severe headache without a known cause
- Slurred speech
- Facial droop
- Numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg (almost always on one side)
- Difficulty speaking or understanding speech
- Worsening of vision in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking or loss of balance
Stroke is a medical emergency and every second counts. If you think you are having symptoms of a stroke, you should call 911 immediately. It is always best to err on the side of caution and get a prompt medical evaluation, even if you only have a slight suspicion of a stroke.
Types of Stroke
There are two main types of strokes—ischemic and hemorrhagic. In both types of stroke, the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the affected part of the brain gets cut off. In ischemic strokes, a blockage in one or more blood vessels in the brain can lead to insufficient blood flow to that part of the brain, leading to damage of the affected brain tissue (ischemia). Hemorrhagic strokes develop when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures and bleeds (hemorrhage). Ischemic strokes account for 87% of strokes while hemorrhagic strokes make up the remaining 13%.
A mini-stroke (also known as transient ischemic attack or TIA) occurs when the normal blood flow to the brain is interrupted, just like during an ischemic stroke. The symptoms of a mini-stroke are also often identical to those of an ischemic stroke. However, the main difference is that a TIA resolves by itself within minutes to hours and does not cause brain damage or permanent disability. A mini-stroke is often a warning sign of a future stroke and should be evaluated by a healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Stroke Risk Factors
Strokes may occur as a result of different causes and predisposing risk factors. The major risk factors include family history of stroke, smoking, obesity, inactive lifestyle, unhealthy diet, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, alcohol and drug abuse, arterial disease, certain heart diseases, sickle cell anemia, sleep apnea, and older age. Also, women, African Americans, and individuals in a lower socioeconomic status have a higher risk of stroke.
7 Strategies for Stroke Prevention
Here are 7 important strategies which can help decrease your risk of having a stroke:
- Avoid smoking. Smoking may cause high blood pressure and damage to blood vessels, which are the two biggest risk factors of a stroke.
- Manage chronic health conditions. Poorly controlled diabetes and hypertension may cause damage to blood vessels while high cholesterol may lead to blood vessel blockage. Having these conditions under control, however, minimizes these risks.
- Stay active. By moving your body and maintaining regular exercise, you can help keep your cardiovascular system healthy and maintain optimal weight.
- Minimize or avoid emotional stress. While day-to-day stresses may be hard to completely avoid, minding your happiness and keeping intense and long-lasting negative emotions away while finding time for relaxation and joyful activities is another way to prevent stroke. Of note, prolonged intense positive emotions may also carry some risk for certain susceptible individuals.
- Eat healthy. Avoiding excessive salt, sugar, animal fats, and junk food helps prevent blood vessel damage and the formation of cholesterol plaques. Eating real food by adding more greens, fish, healthy grains, and oils rich in omega 3 fatty acids preserves the integrity and health of blood vessels and promotes normal blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels.
- Stay hydrated. Dehydration can thicken the blood, making the flow to the brain more difficult. Drinking enough water prevents blood from getting too thick and makes a stroke from dehydration less likely. This is particularly relevant for those who work in the heat, especially when easy access to water is limited.
- Avoid excessive alcohol. Besides other negative impacts on health, too much alcohol can cause atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm that increases the risk of stroke fivefold.
American Stroke Association, “Effects of Stroke.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Stroke,” August 2, 2021.
Eric Donkor, “Stroke in the 21st Century: A Snapshot of the Burden, Epidemiology, and Quality of Life,” Stroke Research and Development, November 27, 2018.
Harvard Health Publishing, “Stroke: Every minute counts,” August 1, 2013.
Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Types of Stroke.”
Shakil Ahmed Chohan, Prasanna Kappaganthu Venkatesh, Choon How How, “Long-term complications of stroke and secondary prevention: an overview for primary care physicians,” Singapore Medical Journal 60, no. 12 (2019).
Stroke Association, “Alcohol and Stroke,” October 2014.