The loss of vision in an eye, weakness or slurring of speech, or the paralysis of an arm or a leg: these are the symptoms of a stroke. If such symptoms resolve within 24 hours they are referred to as TIA (Transient Ischemic Attacks) or “mini-stroke.”
Most people have known someone who has suffered from a stroke or “mini-stroke” and its disabling effects. The statistics are daunting in that someone in the U.S. dies from a stroke every four minutes and it is the number one cause of morbidity. What can be done about limiting your risks?
A stroke occurs when an interruption in the blood flow deprives part of your brain of needed oxygen and nutrients, caused by a plaque buildup that creates a blockage in your carotid arteries. The carotid arteries are the main blood channels to the brain that travel on either side of the neck.
Think of plaque as obstructions in a river, such as logs or debris that buildup and hinder water flow and in some cases break free and travel to vital areas of the brain. Minimizing your stroke risk is a way to reduce or eliminate debris in the river so that blood flows freely to the brain without interruption.
Certain risk factors are uncontrollable. Age, gender, and family history can increase your risk. After the age of 55 the risk of a stroke doubles every decade you are alive. You can’t control that women suffer more strokes than men annually. Nor can you control that a strong family history makes you more susceptible to a stroke. What you can do is make meaningful lifestyle changes that help reduce plaque buildup, no matter your age, gender, or family history.
Lifestyle changes don’t have to be drastic, but must be sustained. First, quit smoking. Among its various negative effects on your health, smoking thickens your blood and increases plaque buildup in the arteries.
There are many ways you can try to quit smoking from medications, nicotine patches, hypnotism, or cold turkey. Smoking is a very difficult habit to break; however, my patients have had the best success with a combination approach.
Second, lose weight, especially if your body mass index (BMI) is over 25; this can be done by eating healthy and exercising regularly. To eat healthy, the USDA suggests a balanced diet that limits red meat and fried and salted foods.
Review the food guide pyramid at cnpp.usda.gov for information on healthy eating dietary guidelines. Regular exercise can be as simple as briskly walking 30 minutes three times a week.
Your physician can help you with optimizing the medical management of your blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes. Medications and regular follow-up to your doctor can keep these risks in check.
There are simple tests such as carotid ultrasonography, which can look at how much blockage or plaque is built up within the carotid arteries. An ultrasound is a painless scan that can provide your doctor with a wealth of information to help in your diagnosis.
Your insurance should cover your scan if you are considered moderate or high risk for developing a stroke; the greater the blockage within the carotid arteries the higher your risk of stroke. When the blockage reaches a certain level surgery may be needed to clean out the plaque so as to reduce your risk of a stroke.
New technologies have emerged in the treatment of carotid disease, which is being evaluated through multicenter trials comparing traditional surgical treatments to minimally invasive procedures such as stenting with aggressive medical management.
In some instances, stenting may be beneficial for high-risk patients or if the blockage is not surgically accessible. As new data emerges on the management of carotid disease it will allow physicians and surgeons to help minimize the effects of a condition that can be devastating.
Remember if you ever have symptoms such as loss of vision in an eye, weakness or slurring of speech, or the paralysis of an arm or a leg, don’t wait—call 911 or visit your local emergency room.