Strokes, or “brain attacks” as they are sometimes called, occur when the flow of blood to the brain is blocked by a blood clot, or when a burst artery causes bleeding in the brain. Without a constant supply of vital oxygen and nutrients, brain cells quickly begin to die. And unless treated quickly, this can result in death or serious, often permanent, impairment of body functions controlled by the damaged portions of the brain.
There are three main types of strokes:
Ischemic strokes, which account for nearly 90 percent of all strokes, occur when blood clots block the flow of blood to the brain. Most people survive these strokes, although they may suffer lasting physical or cognitive damage.
Hemorrhagic strokes occur when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures and begins leaking blood. Hemorrhagic strokes may be accompanied by a sudden severe headache, or even a loss of consciousness. While less common than ischemic strokes they tend to be more dangerous, since about 40 percent of hemorrhagic strokes result in death within a month.
Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) – or “mini strokes,” result from a temporary loss of blood circulation, often lasting 15 minutes or less. TIAs can be warning signs of an impending, more severe stroke.
Strokes can happen to anyone, although an estimated two-thirds of strokes worldwide occur in people older than 65. Women are more prone to strokes than men, perhaps because of their longer life expectancy. African Americans have the highest incidence of stroke of any U.S. racial group, in part because they are more prone to high blood pressure, and to sickle cell anemia, which can cause blood cells to clump together and block blood vessels.
The consequences of strokes can vary widely, ranging from mild weakness or confusion to paralysis, dementia or impaired speech or vision. However, more than two-thirds of stroke survivors end up with some type of disability.
Every year nearly 800,000 Americans have a stroke, and nearly 130,000 of those people die as a result.
Stroke is not only the No. 5 overall cause of death in the United States, it is also a leading cause of disability. Vascular dementia, or cognitive decline resulting from a stroke, is the second most common form of dementia in the U.S., after Alzheimer’s disease.
On a more hopeful note, advances in treating and preventing strokes over the past two decades have significantly reduced the number of Americans now dying of stroke. Currently, there are nearly 7 million stroke survivors in the U.S.
About half of all strokes are related to atherosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries that happens when sticky, fatty substances called plaque build up inside the arteries. Strokes often occur when pieces of plaque break off and are carried to the brain, or blood clots build upon the plaque and then break off.
Other factors linked to increased incidence of strokes include:
High blood pressure
Previous stroke or TIA mini-stroke
The initial signs of a stroke often include sudden weakness, numbness or vision problems – sometimes affecting just one side of the body – as well as confusion, dizziness, slurred speech, trouble walking or talking or a sudden severe headache.
Those experiencing signs of a possible stroke should call 911 immediately or have someone drive them to a hospital, since rapid treatment with clot-dissolving drugs or clot-removing surgery can significantly lessen disability and permanent damage to speech, movement or thinking from a stroke.
Even if the symptoms subside, people should see a doctor as soon as possible to determine whether their symptoms are early warnings of an actual stroke. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 25 percent of people who suffer a stroke will have another stroke within five years. Those who have had TIA mini-strokes also have a heightened risk of stroke, especially during the first few weeks after their TIA.
Doctors usually use a CT or MRI scan to confirm, locate and identify the type of stroke involved, which in turn allows them to determine the best treatment.
The clot-busting drug tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) is by far the most effective treatment for ischemic stroke. When administered intravenously within three hours of a stroke, tPA can often restore the flow of blood to the brain and reduce the amount of permanent brain damage.
Strokes can also be treated surgically using endovascular procedures, in which a tube is fed through an artery into the brain and used to either remove a clot or, in the case of a hemorrhagic stroke, stop the bleeding.
The best treatment for strokes, however, is to prevent them in the first place, since up to 80 percent of all strokes are believed to be preventable.
Medications can play an important role in controlling high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and some of the other underlying causes of stroke. For some patients that can be as simple as taking a daily aspirin. But adopting a healthy lifestyle can be just as important in preventing strokes.
Lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of strokes include:
Limit alcohol intake
Maintain a healthy body weight
Exercise 30 minutes a day
Eat healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables and fish
At Carlton Senior Living, our communities and enhanced assisted living programs offer an ideal recovery environment for seniors to receive post-operative and post-stroke rehabilitation. Our highly skilled nursing staff is available round the clock in several of our communities to help with daily activities, medication management, memory care or to coordinate treatments with physical, occupational or other therapy professionals.
Remember, a healthy lifestyle with exercise and proper nutrition can reduce the risk of stroke significantly for seniors, and that’s exactly what Carlton communities are designed to provide.