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How Atherosclerosis Causes Half of All Strokes

Having a stroke is one of the most frightening prospects of aging. Strokes can come on suddenly, stealing the use of an arm or the ability to speak. A stroke can be fatal or leave us permanently disabled.

About half of all strokes are caused by atherosclerosis -- the same process of narrowing and hardening of the arteries that causes heart attacks. Atherosclerosis progresses silently, without symptoms, putting our brains and our independence at risk.

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Keys to Recognizing a Stroke

Strokes can happen to anyone at any time, regardless of sex or age. Each year, nearly 800,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke, and 130,000 die from one. Of those who survive, more than two-thirds will have some disability. Recognizing stroke symptoms is key to preventing a needless death. “Many patients who have a stroke develop droopiness on one side of the face. And they get weakness in the arm, so in many cases their arm falls to the side and they can’t lift it. If you ask them to smile, it’s...

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Reducing the risk factors for atherosclerosis lowers the risk of stroke. Making a few lifestyle changes can protect your brain from this common cause of strokes.

Facts About Atherosclerosis and Stroke

  • About 700,000 strokes occur each year in the U.S.
  • One in five people will have a stroke in his or her lifetime.
  • One-quarter of strokes are fatal.
  • Stroke is the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., behind heart disease and cancer.

Although most strokes are survivable, most people never recover completely after a stroke. Around a quarter of those who survive are permanently disabled.

There are two main types of strokes:

Ischemic: An artery inside or leading to the brain becomes completely blocked. Usually this is caused by a blood clot that forms in a clogged artery. It can also be due to a blood clot traveling to the brain from the heart.

Most strokes (about 87%) are ischemic, and most of those are caused by atherosclerosis.

Hemorrhagic: These strokes are caused by bleeding into the brain. Most commonly, high blood pressure causes a small artery to burst open. Abnormal blood vessels (such as aneurysms and arteriovenous malformations) are particularly likely to rupture. The bleeding disrupts healthy blood flow to brain tissue.

Hemorrhagic strokes are less common, making up about 13% of all strokes.

Regardless of whether a stroke is caused by atherosclerosis or bleeding, the symptoms are the same:

  • Sudden weakness on one side (in the face, arm, or leg)
  • Slurred speech or inability to remember words
  • Sudden blurry or double vision

Within hours of a stroke's onset, brain tissue dies from lack of oxygen and nutrients, leaving permanent damage.

If stroke-like symptoms strike, the time to call for help is now. Only prompt medical attention can help prevent permanent damage from a stroke.

With these sobering facts in mind, it's worthwhile to understand the process by which atherosclerosis causes strokes.

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