Act Fast to Stop Stroke's Brain Damage

Every Minute's Delay in Seeking Help Costs Nearly 2 Million Brain Cells

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 08, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 8, 2005 -- Doctors have long urged people to get medical help at the first sign of a possible stroke.

Now, a new study highlights what happens to brain cells, or neurons, when stroke treatment is delayed.

"Every minute you wait, hoping your symptoms will go away, you lose almost two million brain cells," Jeffrey Saver, MD, says in a news release.

Saver is a neurology professor at UCLA. He also works at UCLA's Stroke Center.

No. 3 Cause of Death

Saver studied the most common type of stroke, called ischemic stroke.

In an ischemic stroke, a clot blocks blood flow to the brain. That starves brain cells of oxygen. When those brain cells die, the result can be paralysis, difficulty speaking or seeing, emotional problems, and other problems.

Of course, stroke can also be deadly. It's the No. 3 cause of death for U.S. adults.

Every year, about 700,000 Americans have a stroke and nearly 163,000 die of stroke, according to the American Stroke Association.

'Time Is Brain'

Saver calculated brain damage caused by delaying treatment for ischemic stroke.

He sums up his findings in the phrase, "time is brain." That is, delayed treatment heightens stroke's brain damage.

"Compared with the normal rate of neuron loss in brain aging, the ischemic brain ages 3.6 years each hour without treatment," Saver writes.

An untreated stroke unfolds over an average of 10 hours, Saver notes. That means a brain could age 36 years if it goes through the full 10 hours of a stroke without treatment.

"Every second counts," Saver writes. By his estimate, each second's delay costs 32,000 brain cells. "The figures stagger and motivate," Saver writes.

Quick Treatment Essential

Stroke can be treated. But fast action is a must. Stroke drugs have to be given within a few hours of the start of stroke symptoms.

Stroke patients may need bystanders' help, Saver notes in the news release.

"It is often up to witnesses to recognize what is going on and make the call for them," he says. "Knowing just how much is at stake, family members and co-workers should feel empowered to call 911," he continues.

"Don't try to tough it out, and don't waste time trying to get in touch with your primary physician or neurologist," Saver says. "You need emergency help."

Stroke Symptoms

The American Stroke Association lists these warning signs of a possible stroke:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

The chances of having a stroke rise with age. They're also higher for blacks than for whites, for smokers than for nonsmokers, for people who've already had a stroke or heart attack, and for men.

Not smoking, getting proper medical care, and being physically active (with your doctor's permission) can help avoid strokes.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Saver, J. Stroke, January 2006; online edition. News release, American Stroke Association. American Stroke Association: "Impact of Stroke." American Stroke Association: "Stroke Risk Factors." WebMD Medical Reference: "Understanding Stroke -- Prevention."

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