A stroke can happen to anyone, at any time, at any age. A fetus can experience a stroke. However, three-quarters of all strokes happen in people age 65 and older. More than 130,000 people die each year due to stroke, making it the fifth leading cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States. 

Stroke is a very serious condition. It is sometimes called a “brain attack.” When you have a stroke, blood flow to the brain is being blocked, causing brain cells to die due to lack of oxygen or bleeding into the brain. Some cells are damaged, rather than die, and can be saved if treatment is received quickly. Acting fast at the first sign of a stroke can save lives and lessen post-stroke impairment.

Early symptoms in people over age 65 can be subtle, but recognizable. Signs and symptoms include:

Confusion or changes in behavior.

Headache, particularly one in which the pain feels unusual.

Drooping of one side of the face.

Numbness or weakness in the extremities.

Loss of speech or sight that worsens.

Loss of coordination or balance. 

Symptoms may appear differently in women and men. For example, women may get the hiccups or nausea with a stroke. Other symptoms in women may include chest pain; heart palpitations; shortness of breath; and pain in the legs, arm or face.

There is a promotional campaign that uses the word FAST to help people remember the major symptoms of stroke:

Face. Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?

Arms. Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

Speech. Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. Does the speech sound slurred or strange?

Time. If you observe any of these signs (independently or together), call 911 immediately.

There are a number of tests to diagnose a stroke that are given at the hospital, including neurological exams, CT scans, MRIs and lab tests. Early diagnosis and intervention by the appropriate medical team can significantly mitigate the damage caused by a stroke.

If you get to the hospital and receive care within three hours of the onset of a stroke, there are drugs that can dramatically reverse the effects. The medication breaks up blood clots that created the obstruction, allowing a fresh blood supply with oxygen to reach the impacted area. Rehabilitation, including physical, speech and occupational therapy, may be needed. Those who are severely affected may require long-term care.

Not withstanding a genetic predisposition, up to 80% of strokes can be prevented by not smoking; making healthy food choices; getting enough physical activity; maintaining a healthy weight; and treating conditions such as high blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure. These preventative measures are critical for people who have suffered one or more strokes, as about 1 in 4 stroke victims will have another attack.

There are many resources to help those who have had a stroke and their loved ones. Being well-informed is one of the most important factors in reducing the risk of stroke and maximizing recovery after a stroke. The American Heart Association’s website, www.stroke.org, is a wealth of information on the prevention and aftereffects of a stroke.

It can’t be said enough. If there is a chance that someone is having a stroke, get them medical attention immediately. Do not allow “what if” to delay treatment.

Tracy Arabian is the communications officer at SeniorCare Inc., Cape Ann’s local area agency on aging.  

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