Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., after heart disease and cancer. Stroke is res-ponsible for
137,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.
Stroke occurs either when a clot blocks blood flow in an artery to the brain or when a blood vessel ruptures in the
brain, resulting in hemorrhage. Stroke is often a sudden and catastrophic event.
Knowledge about stroke risk factors can promote effective prevention, both through lifestyle changes and use of
certain medications. Equally important is recognition of stroke symptoms, since rapid intervention can reduce the
risk of death or permanent disability from stroke.
Genetics plays a role in stroke risk, which occurs more commonly in those with a family history of stroke. Stroke is
also more common with advancing age. Men are at increased risk. Certain ethnic groups, including African Americans, Hispanic Americans and American Indians/Alaska natives, are at increased risk for stroke.
Certain chronic diseases also increase the risk for stroke. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and
diabetes, which can all lead to hardening of the arteries and build-up of plaques in the blood vessels providing
circulation to the brain. While these conditions increase stroke risk, proper control of blood pressure, blood sugar
and cholesterol levels through lifestyle changes and medication can greatly reduce the risk of stroke.
People with certain heart conditions, including coronary artery disease, abnormalities of heart valves and/or heart
rhythm problems also have increased risk of stroke.
Lifestyle factors play a major role in the risk for stroke. Excess alcohol use and sodium intake can increase blood
pressure and thereby increase stroke risk. Tobacco smoke either through cigarette smoking or even second-hand smoke
exposure can increase the risk for harmful plaque buildup in brain arteries. Finally, obesity increases stroke risk
by increasing the risk for other stroke-related conditions including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and
The symptoms of stroke vary considerably and can range from mild to life-threatening. Symptoms may include speech
difficulties, weakness in facial muscles, paralysis of the arm and/or leg, or visual changes. Occasionally, severe
stroke can lead to sudden death. Milder stroke symptoms that resolve after a brief period may be referred to as a
"transient ischemic attack." This is often a warning sign, and such symptoms should not be ignored.
The prevention of stroke involves adopting healthy lifestyle habits as well as screening for and effectively managing
chronic conditions that increase stroke risk. Eating a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in sodium, avoiding excessive alcohol use, stopping smoking, remaining physically active and maintaining a healthy weight all
can reduce stroke risk. People with high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol should consult with their
physicians about how to properly control these conditions to reduce stroke risk.
Anyone experiencing the sudden onset of paralysis, facial weakness or speech difficulty should call 911 and seek
immediate medical attention. Early recognition and treatment of stroke can save a life.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute
Mountain Health Center in Towaoc.