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Am I at risk for stroke?

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Fifteen million people worldwide suffer a stroke each year. Shockingly, 3 million women and 2.5 million men die as a direct result. In addition to this tragic loss of life, another 5 million people are left permanently disabled, placing a burden on family, community and society.

Stroke is very uncommon in people younger than 40 years of age, but when it does occur, high blood pressure is the main cause. Simply treating and preventing high blood pressure can reduce risk of a stroke up to 40 percent. Prevention is the ultimate cure.
What is a stroke?

A stroke is the brain’s equivalent to a heart attack. The brain requires blood flow in order to function. Brain damage occurs when the brain loses its oxygen and energy supply.

The symptoms of a stroke, as well as the extent of its damage, depend on which part of the brain is injured and how severely it is affected. A stroke can cause irreversible damage, immediate paralysis and even sudden death.

It’s getting better – or is it?

The incidences of preventable strokes seem to decline as a country develops. This is primarily a result of improved public education and health care services designed to lower high blood pressure and reduce smoking.

However, the overall number of strokes continues to rise because society is living longer. This indicates an increase in questionable lifestyle choices over time.  The healthier your lifestyle, the smaller your risk.  

Are you proactive or reactive?

A stroke carries a high risk of death. Stroke survivors can experience loss of vision, speech, paralysis and mental disability. Once you’ve experienced a stroke, further episodes are very common if you do not correct underlying contributing factors.  Even then, you’re still at heightened risk. 

Certain racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups are also at greater risk of high blood pressure, kidney disease and heart attack – all contributors to stroke.

The most important modifiable causes of stroke are high blood pressure, smoking and obesity. Two out of every five stroke-related deaths under the age of 65 years are linked to smoking. As mentioned earlier, four-out-of-ten could have been saved if their blood pressure had been regulated.

Can I have a minor stroke?

It is possible to experience the symptoms of stroke without actually having one.  A minor stroke is not an official condition but commonly used term that is often used to describe a stroke where the symptoms are relatively short-lived.

The symptoms of a stroke or minor stroke in an individual will depend entirely on where the stroke occurs. The brain is complex and each area of the brain controls different bodily functions. For example, a stroke in the base of the brain will cause problems with balance.  A stroke typically causes:

              Weakness of the limbs or face, affecting just one side of the body.
              Possible loss of vision or sensation changes in the skin.
              Speech may be slurred or completely lost.
              Mental confusion.
              Difficulty swallowing.

In a minor stroke, the symptoms are limited and usually improve more quickly and more completely. Symptoms resolve very rapidly and the person usually feels back to normal within 10-15 minutes with certain conditions associated with a minor stroke.

The primary goal of treating any type of stroke is to ensure that the brain receives required oxygen and nutrients.  The first step is to stop the bleeding, improve the blood supply and eliminate possible causes of long-term, disabling side effects.  This is called the acute phase of care and the risk of death significantly increases without it.

To stroke or not to stroke?

The continued bad news is that 60 percent of those who suffer a stroke will die or become dependent regardless of availability of advanced technology and facilities.  The purpose of statistics is not to scare the public but to demonstrate the importance of making lifestyle improvements before a tragedy occurs. 

The good news is that we know how to reduce your risk of stroke significantly. We start the fight with improving the contributing risk factors such as an unhealthy diet, obesity, high salt intake and overall inflammation in the body. 

Inflammation has been found to be the leading cause of heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and more.  This inflammation damages and weakens the blood vessels, making them prone to rupturing and producing a stroke.

Prevent future strokes

The most important aspect of treatment is called secondary prevention. One should expect to suffer another stroke without addressing the underlying causes of the first one.  A variety of treatments and lifestyle modification techniques can be used to reduce your risk.

First, quit smoking and ensure that you are not around second-hand smoke.  Smoking has been found to double the risk of stroke through producing inflammation and scarring of the arteries.  Inflammation is a common outcome of over-consumption of alcohol as well. 

Regular exercise and physical fitness are requisite for a healthy life.  If you’re not moving, you’re not moving.  Simply going for a walk will reduce inflammation and improve circulation of oxygen and nutrients. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to combat obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. 

What is a balanced diet?

It is a common recommendation to eat a balanced diet but most people don’t know what that really means.  Does that mean that you should eat both good and bad things?  If you’re consuming foods that produce inflammation, you’re increasing your risk of stroke.  Don’t eat in balance; eat for your nutrient requirements. 

What foods produce inflammation?  The causers of inflammation are located in processed food items, boxed items, canned goods and other food goods that can sit on the shelf for years.  Other major contributors are sodas and other sugar-laced drinks that we’re now giving to our children.

Medicine is often confusing

Other recommendations often yield further explanation as well.  It’s common for health care providers to say one should lower their blood cholesterol levels – the more the better.  This is not true.  Cholesterol is needed in the body for healing and function.  If you eliminated it completely, you would die.

Inflammation is the leading cause of ‘bad’ cholesterol, high blood pressure, blood clots and scarring of the arteries.  Without addressing the inflammation, the mentioned side effects of inflammation remain unchecked. As a result, your risk for stroke skyrockets. 

High cholesterol and high blood pressure are not caused by a lack of medication.  It’s caused by improper function of the human body.  By committing to a healthy diet and an ideal exercise regimen while also eliminating risk factors like smoking, you encourage proper healing and function.  This lifestyle will not only prevent your first stroke, but also your second.

Dr. Cory Couillard is an international healthcare speaker and columnist for numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and publications throughout the world. He works in collaboration with the World Health Organization's goals of disease prevention and global healthcare education. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.

Facebook: Dr Cory Couillard
Twitter: DrCoryCouillard

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