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Know How to Spot a Stroke? Most Don't

Seconds count when it comes to surviving a stroke. WebMD tells you how to recognize the warning signs.

Seek Treatment - Fast

But waiting can be costly. Stroke is the third leading cause of death in this country, behind heart disease and cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health. Every year, about 700,000 people in the U.S. suffer a stroke, and nearly 163,000 will die as a result. Stroke also leads to more serious and lasting disabilities than any other disease. These problems include paralysis, trouble with speech or thinking, personality changes, and trouble with performing daily tasks, such as walking, eating, dressing, and toileting.

Stroke can happen at any stage of life, even in fetuses and children, but it becomes more likely with age. Stroke occurs most often in people over age 65.

Most strokes -- about 80% -- are ischemic ones that occur when a clot blocks blood flow to the brain. About 20% are hemorrhagic strokes that occur when a blood vessel breaks and bleeds into the brain (Sharon's doctors reported that he suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke).

What Happens

During a stroke, some brain cells die immediately because they are deprived of oxygen and nutrients from the blood or because sudden bleeding damages them. However, other cells don't die right away but can linger for several hours in a weakened state. Prompt treatment may be able to save these cells and reduce damage and disability.

Besides ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes, people can also have transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs, in which blood flow to the brain is blocked temporarily. These "ministrokes," in which symptoms may last for only a few minutes, are a serious warning sign that an actual stroke may be on the way. Because TIA symptoms disappear, it's easy for people to dismiss them when they should call 911 and seek treatment to prevent a full-blown, debilitating stroke.

During a stroke, experts urge people to get to the hospital as soon as possible, preferably within one hour after symptoms appear, so that they can be evaluated and perhaps receive treatments that must be given within a window of time. One drug, t-PA, can dissolve blood clots and restore blood flow during an ischemic stroke, but doctors must start delivering it intravenously within three hours after symptoms begin.

Besides the lack of awareness of stroke symptoms, psychological issues get in the way of timely treatment, too, Becker says. "There's a huge issue of denial. People can't believe they're having a stroke. Or they're embarrassed to have an ambulance pull up and everyone's watching what's going on."

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