Only old people have strokes, right? Wrong. A recent study of 7,740 strokes showed that 45 percent of victims were younger than 65, and 27 percent were under 55. “Stroke is no longer an old-age affliction,” says study author Timothy J. Wolf, who holds a doctorate in occupational therapy and teaches at the Washington University School of Medicine. “People in the prime of life now have more strokes than ever.
A big reason is that a record number of Americans are overweight, says Dr. Salina Waddy, a stroke neurologist and the program director for research at the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke. Obesity raises blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a key risk factor for stroke.
What Exactly Is a Stroke?
Most strokes are like heart attacks. In an ischemic stroke, cholesterol-rich deposits block an artery in the brain. When this happens, part of the brain is deprived of nutrients and oxygen, which disrupts whatever function — speech, vision, walking, etc. — that part of the brain controls. In a hemorrhagic stroke, a blood vessel in the brain bursts. The results are often the same: impairment followed by serious disability or death.
Do You Know the Symptoms of Stroke?
Most people know that chest pain might signal a heart attack, but few know the warning signs of stroke:
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Sudden confusion, or trouble speaking or understanding what others say
- Sudden difficulty seeing out of one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden severe headache for no apparent reason
The key word here is “sudden.” Many experience dizziness or develop headaches for no apparent reason; the tip-off for stroke is that symptoms strike suddenly, explains Waddy. “One minute you feel fine, the next something is definitely wrong,” she says. In addition, not all warning signs occur in every stroke.
How Serious Are Stroke Symptoms?
Unfortunately, because few people recognize stroke symptoms, many dismiss them and discourage loved ones from calling 911. And yet, every year 800,000 Americans suffer strokes, and 144,000 die from them. Stroke is the nation’s third leading cause of death (after heart disease and cancer) and the top cause of serious long-term disability.
So if someone you’re with experiences one or more stroke symptoms, don’t hesitate — drugs that treat stroke work best when taken within three hours of symptoms. Call 911 immediately, say you suspect stroke, then follow the operator’s instructions. A life may depend on it.