Recognizing and taking action on signs of a stroke

As our neighbors, friends and family grow older, it’s important to be aware of signs of strokes, heart attacks and other potentially dangerous health conditions. This article focuses on strokes.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. One in 17 deaths is caused by a stroke. Stroke also is a leading cause of serious longterm disability.

On Maui, our rate of death from stroke is lower than the state average, which is good news. But our incidence of high cholesterol is above both the state and national averages. And in the last decade, the prevalence of high blood pressure in older adults on Maui has increased substantially. Both of these conditions increase the risk of stroke.

Let’s take a look at what happens in a stroke, how to identify and respond to signs of a stroke, and how to reduce the risk of stroke.

What is a stroke?

A stroke occurs when blood flow is blocked to part of the brain. When this happens, the brain doesn’t receive the oxygen and other nutrients carried by the blood. As a result, brain cells are damaged or begin to die. Damaged cells can sometimes be repaired, but those that have died cannot be brought “back to life.”

There are two primary types of strokes: ischemic and hemorrhagic.

A hemorrhagic stroke is caused by a broken blood vessel that triggers bleeding in the brain.

An ischemic stroke results from a narrowed or blocked blood vessel, generally caused by a blood clot. Both interrupt the flow of oxygen and nutrients to brain cells.

Stroke Signs and Symptoms

Common signs of a stroke include sudden changes that involve:

* Numbness, weakness or paralysis in the face, arm or leg. These symptoms often appear on one side of the body.

* Communication challenges. This may include confusion and difficulty speaking, understanding or thinking clearly.

* Vision problems. Problems may involve difficulty seeing in one or both eyes.

* Headache. This may include a sudden, severe headache that is accompanied by nausea, vomiting or loss of consciousness.

* Walking difficulty. Sudden dizziness can cause someone to stumble or fall or lose balance and coordination.

The National Stroke Association offers an easy way to remember warning signs and symptoms. It is F.A.S.T.

* Face – Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?

* Arms – Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

* Speech – Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?

* Time – If you observe any of these signs, call 911 immediately.

Managing Risk Factors

There are many actions that reduce the risk of a stroke. They include:

* Managing blood pressure with a healthy diet, regular exercise and medications prescribed by a doctor.

* Keeping cholesterol within a healthy range through diet, exercise and medications.

* Managing diabetes through a diabetes-friendly diet and proper monitoring of blood sugar levels and medications or insulin.

* Managing heart disease through diet, exercise and medications.

* Stopping smoking or using other tobacco products.

* Maintaining a healthy weight. For those who are overweight, even losing 10 pounds can reduce the risk of a stroke and other health problems.

* Exercising. Begin walking, swimming, dancing, bicycling or anything else that is fun and motivating.

On the Net:

* Warning Signs of a Stroke, America’s Research-based Learning Network and a partner of the UH Manoa Cooperative Extension,

* Stroke Symptoms, National Stroke Association,

* What is a Stroke? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institute on Health,

* Heather Greenwood is with the University of Hawaii Manoa Cooperative Extension, Maui Intergenerational and Aging Programs. Aging Matters will cover topics of interest to the aging Maui community and will appear on the third Sunday of each month.