Strokes are the fifth leading cause of death in men (and the third most common cause of death in women), yet most guys can't name one stroke symptom. Here's how to recognize and prevent them.
Why Should I Care About Strokes?
If you're like most middle-aged guys, you probably don't spend much time worrying about having a stroke. After all, strokes are a risk we associate with later in life -- something to fret about after we retire and are fitted with our first pair of dentures.
But maybe we should be a little more concerned. Strokes are, after all, the fifth most common cause of death in men -- behind heart disease, cancer, and accidents. They are indeed more likely in men over age 65, but they can happen at any age. Strokes are also more likely to be fatal and strike earlier in men than in women.
The consequences of a stroke can be devastating. Not only can a stroke kill you, but nonfatal strokes can leave you severely debilitated, paralyzed, or unable to communicate.
However, the news isn't all bleak. According to the National Stroke Foundation, 80% of all strokes are preventable. So it's time to improve your odds. If you're at risk, you need to learn the signs of stroke and make some changes in your lifestyle.
What is a stroke?
There are actually two different kinds of strokes.
- Ischemic strokes. These are the most common type of stroke. They happen when a blood clot blocks an artery, choking off oxygen to a part of the brain. Without oxygen, brain cells first go into shock and then start dying. So the longer you go without stroke treatment, the greater the damage to your brain.
While not a full-fledged stroke, transient ischemic attacks (TIAs or "mini-strokes") cause stroke symptoms but resolve within a few minutes. More about that later.
- Hemorrhagic strokes. While less common, these strokes can be more devastating. They're the result of a hemorrhage -- a burst blood vessel -- in the brain. Although the cause is very different from an ischemic stroke, the result is the same: Brain cells can't get the blood they need. More than 60% of people who have a hemorrhagic stroke die within a year, and those who survive tend to be much more disabled.
How can I prevent a stroke?
Hemorrhagic strokes are best prevented by controlling high blood pressure. The less pressure there is on the walls of your blood vessels, the less likely they are to burst.
The more common ischemic strokes are caused by blood clots -- the same villains responsible for heart attacks. To decrease the risks, you need to keep your arteries clear of plaque -- the gunk that builds up in them and leads to clotting. Ways to do this include:
- Exercising for at least half an hour on most days of the week
- Eating right -- preferably a diet low in saturated fat (such as that in processed meats) and high in fruits and vegetables
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Not smoking -- smokers are twice as likely to have a stroke
Certain heart conditions -- such as atrial fibrillation, which causes the heart to pump less efficiently than it should, can also cause clots that lead to strokes. High blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol raise your risk, too. If you have any of these conditions, you'll need to keep them under control with lifestyle changes or medication. Low-dose aspirin can reduce stroke risk, although it may not help younger men already at low risk for stroke. Talk to your doctor before starting aspirin therapy.
Some risk factors for stroke -- such as increasing age and family history -- can't be controlled. Even so, making changes to your way of life can still have a big positive effect.
How are strokes treated?
Specific stroke treatment depends on the type of stroke. If caught in time, ischemic strokes can be treated with drugs called clot busters (thrombolytics). Clot busters can quickly dissolve the blockage, restoring blood flow to the affected area and preserving brain cells.
Hemorrhagic strokes are difficult to treat -- usually, it's necessary to simply watch and wait for bleeding to stop on its own. Occasionally, hemorrhagic strokes can be treated with surgery or other procedures.
The main problem with treating strokes is catching them in time. Clot-busters need to be given within a few hours of the very first symptoms of a stroke.
As you recover -- and stroke recovery can be slow -- you're likely to need ongoing treatment. The problem is that having one stroke puts you at risk for having more. If you've had an ischemic stroke, your doctor might recommend blood thinners -- drugs that reduce your blood's tendency to clot. Stents can also be surgically implanted to open up a clogged artery.
What else do I need to know about strokes?
For such a common killer of men, we tend to be woefully ill-informed about strokes. A third of all men can't name a single stroke symptom. So learn the signs of stroke. If you ever have any of the following stroke symptoms, you need treatment right away.
- Sudden numbness or weakness, particularly on only one side of the body
- Sudden confusion
- Trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Trouble with vision
- Trouble walking or maintaining balance
And we should say a few words about TIAs -- or if you prefer, "mini-strokes." TIAs cause the same stroke symptoms as above, but they're so brief -- usually lasting only a few minutes -- that they don't do lasting damage to the brain.
However, never ignore these stroke symptoms, no matter how quickly they fade. Having a TIA seriously increases your risk of having a full-fledged stroke. Your doctor is likely to start you on treatment right away.
Whatever you do, never take signs of stroke lightly. Don't ignore them. Get to an emergency room right away. Because when it comes to stroke treatment, every minute counts.