HANCOCK - Although commonly associated with old age, strokes can happen to anyone. Certain controllable and uncontrollable risk factors increase the risk of stroke but there are some steps people can take to reduce their risk and recognize signs of stroke in loved ones.
A stroke can be caused by a blood clot blocking an artery or a blood vessel breaking, interrupting blood flow to an area of the brain, according to the National Stroke Association. When blood flow is interrupted, brain cells die and brain damage, which can be permanent, occurs. According to Dr. Katriina Hopper of Portage Health, identifying a stroke early and immediately seeking care can help reduce the damage from a stroke.
"Time lost is brain lost. If medication can be given to treat a stroke it has to be given within a certain time window," she said.
In this December photo, Jackson Cunningham, 11, works on his mobility and strength with physical therapist Sheila Krahl, right, at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Jackson suffered a stroke in 2011 that paralyzed much of the left side of his body. His story of determination and recovery has been a source of inspiration for many, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who became pen-pals with the Oakwood boy following his own January 2012 stroke. (AP photo)
Risk factors include both controllable behaviors and uncontrollable attributes. Women, for example, are more likely to have a stroke than men and, although a stroke can occur at any time in life, the risk does increase with age. While nothing can change a person's gender or age, behaviors such as smoking also increase the risk of stroke and can be changed.
"The biggest controllable risk factor is treating high blood pressure," Hopper said. "High blood pressure over time can weaken blood vessels and organs like the brain. That's why it is so important for people to get their blood pressure checked."
Other controllable risk factors include high cholesterol, uncontrolled chronic diseases like diabetes, smoking, alcohol use and weight.
"Lifestyle risk factors that can be changed include smoking, which doubles the risk of stroke. Alcohol use has been linked to strokes and obesity is linked to risk of strokes," Hopper said.
"It is important as people age that they talk to their doctors about any risk factors they might have. Gender and age you can't modify but controlling chronic diseases can be done."
Identifying a stroke soon after it happens is important to recovery. The medication to dissolve clots and improve blood flow to the brain, for example, should be administered within three hours of onset.
"That's why it's important to identify a stroke and get the person to the hospital," Hopper said.
The National Stroke Association created an acronym to help people remember ways to identify a stroke. FAST, standing for Face, Arm, Speech and Time, can help people spot the symptoms of a stroke by checking the person's face to see if one side droops, arms to see if one drifts downward and speech to check for any slurring or strangeness. The T means it is time to call 911 and get the person who may have suffered a stroke to emergency care.
"Get the person immediately to the emergency room because there are treatments that are very time dependent," Hopper said. "FAST doesn't cover everything - confusion, sudden difficulty seeing or sudden dizziness or loss of balance or, this is very important, a sudden severe headache with no apparent cause could be a sign of a stroke as well."
It is also important to remember, Hopper said, that anyone can suffer a stroke. If you believe you have had a stroke, do not drive yourself but rather call 911.
"Strokes can happen in young people as well and for women and especially during pregnancy and postpartum period the blood tends to clot easier and that is a time when the risk factor for stroke in young women goes," Hopper said.
To discuss risk factors and stroke prevention speak to your doctor. For more information on strokes, visit the National Stroke Association at stroke.org.