Transient ischemic attack, often referred to as a ministroke, occurs when there is a temporary lack of blood flow to the brain. Almost a quarter-million Americans experience a TIA every year.

TIAs are a “good news, bad news” condition. The good news is that TIAs don’t kill brain tissue or cause permanent disabilities. The bad news is that a TIA happens before about 15% of all strokes. Up to 25% of people who experience a TIA die within a year. About 33% of people who suffer a TIA have a more severe stroke within a year. Recognizing a TIA and getting immediate medical care are critical.

TIAs tend to be brief, and the symptoms can often clear up by the time you get to the doctor. This could cause people to believe that a TIA is a minor event. But that is not true.

Here is a list of common symptoms associated with a TIA:

Vision changes

Trouble speaking

Confusion

Balance issues

Numbness

Weakness

Tingling

Muscular weakness generally on one side of the body

Severe headache with no obvious cause

Although TIAs don’t lead to permanent brain damage, emergency medical care is necessary because TIA symptoms are the same as those of a stroke. It is not possible for you to tell whether your symptoms are related to a TIA or a stroke. This can only be done by a medical professional.

Treating a TIA is focused on mitigating the chance of a future stroke. Medical professionals may start or adjust medication that improve blood flow to the brain.

Treatment options may include:

Medicines such as antiplatelet drugs, which help prevent blood clots, such as aspirin, Plavix, Effient or Aggrenox.

Surgery, called carotid endarterectomy, where your doctor clears the carotid arteries of fatty deposits and plaques.

Lifestyle changes can also reduce your risk of future TIAs or strokes. Some of these changes include:

Don’t smoke. Stopping smoking reduces your risk of a TIA or a stroke.

Limit cholesterol and fat. Cutting back on cholesterol and fat, especially saturated fat and trans fat, in your diet may reduce buildup of plaques in your arteries.

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. These foods contain nutrients such as potassium, folate and antioxidants, which may protect against a TIA or a stroke.

Limit sodium. If you have high blood pressure, avoiding salty foods and not adding salt to food may reduce your blood pressure. Avoiding salt may not prevent hypertension, but excess sodium may increase blood pressure in people who are sensitive to sodium.

Exercise regularly. If you have high blood pressure, regular exercise is one of the few ways you can lower your blood pressure without drugs.

Limit alcohol intake. Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. The recommended limit is no more than one drink daily for women and two a day for men.

Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight contributes to other risk factors, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Losing weight with diet and exercise may lower your blood pressure and improve your cholesterol levels.

Don’t use illicit drugs. Drugs such as cocaine are associated with an increased risk of a TIA or a stroke.

Control diabetes. You can manage diabetes and high blood pressure with diet, exercise, weight control and — when necessary — medication.

Educate yourself on the warning signs of stroke — and do it FAST.

F – Face drooping

A – Arm weakness

S – Speech slurred

T – Time to call 911

A TIA can signal a future stroke. Take the warning seriously, and don’t delay. According to the American Heart Association, stroke is the leading cause of long-term disability in the U.S. and the fifth leading cause of death.

Tracy Arabian is the communications officer at SeniorCare Inc., a local agency on aging that serves Gloucester, Beverly, Essex, Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Rockport, Topsfield and Wenham.

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