Harvard Health Publications

World Stroke Day: stroke is common, disabling, and often preventable

Posted By Howard LeWine, M.D. On October 29, 2013

Today is World Stroke Day. It offers a good reminder of the profound impact that stroke has on individuals and communities.

A stroke occurs when something interrupts blood flow to part of the brain. That something could be a clot lodged in a blood vessel. That causes an ischemic stroke. It could also be a break in a blood vessel. That leads to a hemorrhagic stroke. The type of stroke is important, since they require different types of treatment.

Nearly 800,000 Americans have strokes each year; about 90% of these are ischemic strokes. Worldwide, one in six adults will have a stroke during their lifetime. Although most survive, stroke is a leading cause of disability in the United States and many other countries.

A report published last week in The Lancet documents a troubling trend: more and more young people are experiencing strokes. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of strokes among people aged 20 to 64 years increased 25%. This age group now accounts for one-third of strokes worldwide.

Other findings:

  • The incidence of stroke (the number of new cases a year) decreased by 12% in high-income countries, but increased by 12% in low-income and middle-income countries.
  • Stroke-related deaths decreased 37% in high-income countries and 20% in low-income and middle-income countries.
  • In 2010, nearly 17 million had strokes worldwide, up 40% since 1990. Most of the increase was in low-income and middle-income countries.

Prevention is key

Some stroke survivors recover fully and regain their previous levels of function. Others don’t. Keys to full recovery include rapid identification of stroke symptoms, immediate evaluation and treatment, early rehabilitation, and support.

Here are some signs that you or someone you are with is having a stroke:

  • sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or understanding
  • sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • sudden severe headache

If you notice any of these warning signs it is important to get to an emergency room as quickly as possible—ideally in a hospital with a stroke center (you can find a stroke center here).

While it’s important to talk about early identification and treatment, it’s just as important to talk about prevention. Many strokes—perhaps the majority of them—are preventable. Here’s how:

  • Know your personal risk factors for stroke, including high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, high blood cholesterol, atrial fibrillation, and a history of having a transient ischemic attack or previous stroke
  • Control or manage these conditions by working with your health-care providers
  • Be active. Exercise or engage in physical activity every day.
  • Choose a healthy diet rich in vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and unsaturated fats.
  • If you drink alcohol, keep it moderate. That means no more than two drinks a day for men or one a day for women.
  • Avoid cigarette smoke—yours or someone else’s.

Related Information: Stroke: Preventing and treating “brain attack”

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