Knowing Stroke: Preventing it or Surviving it

It’s May and that means it is National Stroke Awareness Month. The American Heart Association (AHA) and the American Stroke Association (ASA) have teamed up, campaigning to raise public awareness about stroke, a disease affecting the arteries leading to and within the brain that causes brain injury. Their educational efforts cover the warning signs of stroke, symptoms of a stroke, stroke prevention, and the impact of stroke on survivors, families and caregivers.

Stroke (originally known as apoplexy and now also known as a cerebral vascular accident — CVA) has been around for a long time. It is unknown how many people suffered from stroke 2,400 years ago when it was first recognized by Hippocrates, the father of medicine. But today almost every one of us knows someone, who has suffered a stroke — it’s the fifth highest cause of U.S. deaths. It is also a leading cause of long-term disability, including paralysis, pain, aphasia, problems with thinking or memory and emotional disturbances.

What exactly happens during a stroke that causes the brain injury? There are essentially two types of stroke, and they both obstruct blood flow in the brain, depriving brain cells of vital oxygen, causing brain cell death. The first type of stroke is caused by a clot obstructing an artery (ischemic) and the second type is caused by a blood vessel in the brain rupturing (hemorrhagic). Strokes affect people differently based on what areas of the brain are deprived of oxygen.

Knowing the warning signs of stroke and being able to request immediate medical intervention could mean the difference between life and death — or moderate versus heavy brain damage — to someone in the midst of a stroke. An easy to remember acronym which identifies these main warning signs is FAST, and it’s a good idea to become familiar with it.

Stronger after Stroke book coverScientific research from the past few decades on both injured and non-injured brains has revealed useful information about the brain’s neuroplasticity (which means that the brain can heal and rewire itself following an injury). In “Stronger After Stroke: Your Roadmap to Recovery,” Peter Levine has taken the latest research data on brain plasticity and used it to develop a full guide to recovering from stroke. This book and other post-stroke guide books are excellent resources for stroke survivors, their family members and care providers.

Although some factors for stroke can’t be controlled, strokes are largely preventable through lifestyle habits. This prescription of healthy lifestyle habits probably won’t come as a surprise to you since it’s promoted to prevent other disease (i.e. diabetes mellitus, cancer, heart attack). The American Heart Association calls this list Life’s Simple 7. Here it is: not smoking, getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy body weight, and controlling cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar.

My Stroke of Insight book coverIn a moving and remarkable Ted Talk, Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, recounts the events of her own massive and severely debilitating stroke — witnessing, experiencing and explaining it as only a brain scientist would be able to do. Her “stroke of insight,” gained as her stroke progressed, was spiritual in nature, and it inspired and fueled her eight-years-long grueling but full recovery. Other life-altering and inspiring stories about stroke survivors and their family members can be found in this list of memoirs.

Educational campaigns like the one conducted by the AHA and the ASA have helped make a difference — in recent years the overall number of strokes has declined. This trend can continue as more people educate themselves about stroke, and do what they can to remove these risk factors from their lives.

Photo credit: Marcos Fernandez, Brain Health via Flickr (license)