How to Prevent a Stroke

Learn about stroke symptoms, prevention and treatment.

Man holding his head in pain.

Dizziness, a severe headache and trouble speaking or understanding are all symptoms of a stroke.

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Each year, 795,000 Americans have a stroke. It's the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States, and one American dies of a stroke every four minutes. Stroke causes more serious long-term disabilities than any other disease.

A stroke occurs when oxygen-rich blood cannot reach brain cells. Without oxygen, brain cells start to die. One reason oxygen-rich blood cannot reach brain cells is that the arteries to the cells are blocked. Blood clots are the most frequent cause of blocked arteries. In some instances, blood clots form in another part of the body and travel to the brain. Another type of clot is caused by cholesterol deposits that build up in the arteries blocking blood flow. Approximately 85 percent of strokes are caused by blocked arteries.

A second type of stroke is caused when bleeding occurs in the brain or on the surface of the brain. Bleeding occurs when an artery bursts due to high blood pressure. In other instances, a weakened artery wall eventually bursts. This type of stroke is sometimes called a brain bleed. The pressure from the leaked blood damages surrounding brain cells. Bleeding also reduces the amount of blood that reaches brain cells. Sometimes, an individual may experience stroke symptoms that last for only a short period of time. This is called a ministroke. Ministrokes leave no permanent damage but increase the risk for more serious strokes.

Symptoms of Stroke

A stroke is a medical emergency requiring immediate treatment. Call 911 immediately if you or someone you know has the following symptoms:

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

It's critical that people receive treatment within three to four hours after symptoms appear. Delayed treatment results in greater disability.

Why are some people more prone to having a stroke?

People with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol are at increased risk for having a stroke. Other risk factors include a family history of stroke, alcohol or drug abuse, stress and depression and certain medical conditions. Race and age are also risk factors. African-Americans have the highest risk for stroke. Nearly 75 percent of all strokes occur in people older than 65 years.

How is stroke treated?

Both types of stroke are treated with a combination of surgery, medication and rehabilitation. Treatment also consists of lifestyle changes, including smoking cessation, exercise, a healthy diet and weight reduction.

Strokes caused by blocked arteries:

  • Medications called clot busters are administered as soon as possible. To be effective, these medicines must be administered within three hours after symptoms appear.
  • Doctors may remove the clot by inserting a tiny device that physically grabs and removes the clot.
  • A flexible catheter is inserted into the groin and threaded to the tiny arteries of the brain. Your doctor can deliver medicine through this catheter to break up a blood clot.
  • A blood thinner may be prescribed. This may include aspirin or prescription medications. Medication to reduce cholesterol levels may also be prescribed.
  • Rehabilitation is provided.

Strokes caused by bleeding:

  • Surgery may be required to repair weakened arteries.
  • If the bleeding causes pressure around the brain, a small opening is made into the skull to relieve pressure.
  • Medications are given to lower high blood pressure.
  • Rehabilitation is provided.

Stroke results in various disabilities. Recovery may take weeks, months or even years. Often, stroke affects language, speech and memory. Muscle and nerve problems, along with bladder and bowel problems, are common effects of stroke. Stroke victims may have problems walking and a loss of balance and coordination. A serious stroke may result in partial paralysis. Additionally, some stroke victims have problems swallowing and eating. Stroke victims may also have difficulty controlling their emotions.

Occupational therapists work with patients to help restore some of these lost functions. Many stroke victims have some type of long-term disability. The disability depends on the brain tissue that is damaged. The good news is that more than 50 percent of people who have a stroke are able to function and live independently. The others require caregiver assistance.

Is there anything I can do to prevent or minimize the risk for having a stroke?

Stroke prevention focuses on decreasing known risk factors:
  • Control your blood pressure. High blood pressure is the No. 1 risk factor for having a stroke.
  • Stop smoking and limit alcohol intake. Smoking and heavy drinking increase the risk for stroke.
  • Control your cholesterol. Have your cholesterol levels tested on a regular basis. 
  • Control your diabetes. Untreated diabetes can damage blood vessels. Eat a healthy diet that is low in sodium, cholesterol and saturated fat. Eliminate high-sugar drinks.
  • Exercise regularly. Make physical activity a routine part of your everyday life.
  • Discuss birth control with your physician. Birth control pills increase the chance of having blood clots, especially for women who are older than 35 years.
  • Do not sit for long periods of time. This may cause blood clots to develop in a leg, and they may travel to the brain.
  • For brain bleeding, treating hypertension is the most effective intervention. Increased physical activity decreases the risk of stroke by 25 to 30 percent.

Where can I find additional information?

The American Stroke Association has easy-to-understand information and also coordinates support groups, which can help you understand how others have coped with having a stroke.

Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 13, 2013 on PharmacyTimes.com. It has been edited and republished by U.S. News. The original version, with references, can be seen here.