As a child, I watched my grandfather suffer a stroke that eventually killed him. Now, as a neurologist and director of the Geisinger Stroke Program, stroke prevention and treatment is my life’s work.
Strokes happen when a blood vessel or artery clogs, cutting off the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain, or when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures, causing bleeding. The best place to go if you suspect you’re having a stroke is your nearest hospital emergency department. The ambulance crew who escorts you there is trained to begin immediate treatment.
The window of opportunity to successfully treat a stroke is short — just a couple of hours — and every minute counts. Time lost is brain lost from the onset of a person's symptoms, and there’s a critical window of time where treatment results in the best outcomes.
Here are some ways to help both manage and prevent a stroke:
1. If you think you or someone you know is having a stroke, remember the acronym F.A.S.T.
F = Face. Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
A = Arm. Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S = Speech. Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. Does the speech sound slurred or strange?
T = Time. If you observe any of these signs, call 911 immediately.
2. Check your blood pressure.
Blood pressure is the single most important risk factor for a stroke. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control found that nearly one in three American adults have hypertension, and more than half of the 36 million who have hypertension don’t have it under control. Even mild hypertension increases stroke risk, if inadequately treated. Make sure to check your blood pressure regularly.
3. Watch your weight and monitor your diet.
Make healthy decisions. Choose heart-healthy fats like fish and nuts, avoid processed foods with little nutritional value or high sodium and fat content, and try to consume foods throughout the day that will keep your energy up and your belly full. In addition to this, exercise! Working out increases your circulation and helps you burn off any extra calories you might have indulged in that day. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise at least four times a week.
4. Don’t start a daily aspirin therapy on your own.
Many of us have heard about the potential benefits of taking an aspirin daily, but check with your doctor before you start that routine. Aspirin thins your blood, but it could also have negative effects on your liver and stomach lining.
5. Quit smoking.
There are literally hundreds of reasons to quit smoking, and preventing a stroke is yet another one. Smoking causes plaque buildup in your arteries, it damages your blood vessels and it increases your blood pressure — all factors that could potentially contribute to a stroke.
What can you do to make sure you’re prepared in the instance a stroke happens? Find out which hospitals in your area are considered Primary Stroke Centers, which is a designation from the American Heart Association to honor hospitals that are particularly equipped to take care of stoke patients. These centers offer complete prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation services for stroke – some of these techniques are so intricate that they're only available at selected hospitals. Additionally, familiarize your family with the “F.A.S.T.” acronym. By thinking fast when a stroke happens, you could save a life.