"I never knew what a stroke was until that day. I was taken to the emergency room and given several diagnostic tests. Although I had the signs and symptoms of a stroke, the physicians did not believe it could be a stroke. Why? Because I was only 31 years old."
Andrew Walker's story is not uncommon. Did you know that stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States, killing nearly 163,000 Americans each year? In African Americans, stroke is more common and more deadly--even in young and middle-aged adults--than for any other racial or ethnic group in the United States.
What is a Stroke?
A stroke, sometimes called a "brain attack," occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted. When a stroke occurs, brain cells in the immediate area begin to die because they stop getting the oxygen and nutrients they need to function.
There are two major kinds of stroke. The first, called an ischemic stroke, is caused by a blood clot that blocks a blood vessel or artery in the brain. About 80 percent of all strokes are ischemic. The second, known as a hemorrhagic stroke, is caused by a blood vessel in the brain that breaks and bleeds into the brain.
Know the Signs
You need to recognize the symptoms of a stroke and get to a hospital quickly. Getting treatment within 60 minutes can prevent disability.
The symptoms of stroke are distinct because they happen quickly:
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg (especially on one side of the body)
- Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause
As unexpected as the strokes may seem, they can be prevented. It is much easier to prevent strokes than treating them after they have happened. Prevention consists of adopting lifestyle changes that improve the chance of healthier blood vessels.
- If you smoke, STOP. Smoking causes your blood vessels to constrict, and leads to poor blood circulation. Cigarette smoking has been linked to the buildup of fatty substances in the main neck artery supplying blood to the brain. Blockage of this artery is the leading cause of stroke. Also, nicotine raises blood pressure; carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen your blood can carry to the brain; and cigarette smoke makes your blood thicker and more likely to clot.
- Know your cholesterol numbers. Improve your cholesterol level or keep it at the right level to help reduce your risk. High cholesterol elevates your risk of stroke death.
- Reduce high blood pressure. High blood pressure tends to be more common, happens at an earlier age, and is more severe for many African Americans. Unfortunately, hypertension has no cure. However, it can be controlled. Not only is it closely associated with stroke risk, but it can also cause heart attacks, kidney problems and eye problems.
- If you have diabetes, control it. Treatment can delay complications that increase the risk of stroke.
- If you have transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), seek help. TIAs are small strokes that last only for a few minutes or hours. They should never be ignored and can be treated with drugs or surgery.
- If you have had a stroke in the past, reduce the risks of having another one. Follow your doctor's advice and the tips above. Check out the Post-Stroke Rehabilitation Fact Sheet for tips on recovering from a stroke.
Remember, a stroke is a medical emergency. Call 911 and seek help. Every minute counts when someone is having a stroke. The longer blood flow is cut off to the brain, the greater the damage. Immediate treatment can save people's lives and enhance their chances for successful recovery.
For more information, check out these interactive tools and materials:
Resolve to be a better, healthier you in 2005! Brought to you by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For more information, contact 1-800-444-6472 or visit minorityhealth.hhs.gov.