Five minute read

On April 29 Boyz in The Hood director John Singleton passed away at the age of 51 due to complications from a stroke. The Oscar-winning director’s death follows closely on the heels of that of Beverly Hills 90210 actor Luke Perry, who was 52.

Though strokes primarily occur in older adults, the deaths of both men at such relatively young ages highlight the fact that a stroke can strike anyone. In fact, research shows that stroke is on the rise among younger adults. According to the National Stroke Association, there has been a 44% increase in the number of Americans between the ages of 18 – 65 hospitalized due to stroke over the last decade.

No matter what your age, it’s important to understand what a stroke is, what your risk factors are and the things you can do to prevent a stroke.

Understanding Stroke

There are two types of stroke. The most common—about 80%--is an Ischemic stroke. This involves a clot that forms in the brain’s blood vessels, in blood vessels leading to the brain, or in blood vessels elsewhere in the body that blocks off the flow of blood to a part of the brain.

A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures. Blood shoots out into the brain, damaging brain cells. Hemorrhagic strokes are typically a result of high blood pressure and aneurysms which tend to have a genetic component.

When either of the above types of stroke occur, it causes damage to the brain which can kill a person or severely debilitate them. Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., killing 140,000 people a year. It is also the leading cause of disability among Americans, as it can leave survivors paralyzed or unable to communicate.

Health Conditions that Contribute to Stroke

Although a stroke can occur at any age, there are certain risk factors that increase the chances of having one:

  • High blood pressure. Singleton’s death highlights the danger of high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for stroke. High blood pressure is the leading cause of stroke. The condition damages and weakens brain's blood vessels, causing them to narrow, rupture or leak. High blood pressure can also cause blood clots to form in the arteries leading to the brain, blocking blood flow and potentially causing a stroke.
  • High cholesterol. This waxy, fat-like substance is made by the liver or found in certain foods. Our bodies need a small amount of cholesterol to make certain hormones and to stabilize cell membranes, but some people make too much either due to their genes or an excess intake of saturated or trans-fats. When the level of bad cholesterol (LDL) is too high and/or the good cholesterol (HDL) is too low, the extra cholesterol can build up in the arteries, including those of the brain. This can lead to narrowing of the arteries, stroke, and other problems.
  • Diabetes. Diabetes, a disease where the body isn’t able to clear sugar from the blood efficiently contributes to arterial blockages. High blood pressure and bad cholesterol profiles are also common in people with diabetes.

Behaviors that Contribute to Stroke

Lifestyle choices can also have a large impact on the chance of having a stroke. Among them:

  • Unhealthy diet. Diets high in saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol have been linked to stroke and related conditions, such as heart disease. Also, getting too much salt (sodium) in the diet can raise blood pressure levels in some people.
  • Physical inactivity. Not getting enough physical activity can lead to other health conditions that can raise the risk for stroke. These health conditions include obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
  • Obesity. Obesity is linked to higher “bad” cholesterol and triglyceride levels and to lower “good” cholesterol levels. Obesity can also lead to high blood pressure and diabetes.
  • Smoking. Cigarette smoking can directly damage the heart and blood vessels, increasing your risk for stroke. The nicotine in cigarettes raises blood pressure, and the carbon monoxide from cigarette smoke reduces the amount of oxygen that your blood can carry.

Sign of Stroke

If you suspect a stroke, don't delay: Each minute a stroke goes untreated, 1.9 million brain cells die, increasing the potential for disability and death.

You should consider consulting your health care provider immediately if you experience or observe any of these warning signs/symptoms:

  • Sudden weakness or numbness in the face, arm, or leg on one side of the body
  • Abrupt loss of vision, strength, coordination, sensation, speech, or the ability to understand speech. These symptoms may become worse over time
  • Sudden dimness of vision, especially in one eye
  • Sudden loss of balance, possibly accompanied by vomiting, nausea, fever, hiccups, or trouble with swallowing
  • Sudden and severe headache with no other cause followed rapidly by loss of consciousness -- indications of a stroke due to bleeding (hemorrhagic stroke)
  • Unexplained dizziness or sudden falls

Signs of a stroke can be different for different people. The F-A-S-T test is an easy way to remember them:

  • Face: Smile. Does one side of your face sag?
  • Arms: Raise both and see if one droops.
  • Speech: Say a common phrase: Does it sound strange or slurred?
  • Time: Call 9-1-1 right away if you notice any of these symptoms. Note what time they started

Stroke Treatment

Quick treatment not only improves your chances of survival, but also may reduce complications. If you’ve had an ischemic stroke, you may be given a clot-busting drug called tissue plasminogen activator (tPA). Alternatively, the doctor may decide to remove the clot by threading a stent up the artery to grab the clot that caused the stroke.

After a hemorrhagic stroke, the doctor needs to find and control the bleeding. After that, you may have a clamp procedure or a coil to seal an aneurysm.

Reduce Your Risk

To prevent a stroke, a healthy diet and moderate exercise are absolute musts. According to the American Stroke Association, a healthy level of physical activity for adults ages 18 to 65 should be at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week.

You can also use the following strategies to change the way you prepare your meals to help reduce your risk for stroke:

  • Keep portions moderate
  • Drink more water; hydration is important for overall health
  • Limit your use of salt: Use vinegar, lemon juice, red pepper flakes, garlic and onions instead of salt
  • Limit use of sugar and starchy foods
  • Use canola, olive, corn or safflower oil in cooking
  • Buy fresh lean cuts of meat and trim the fat before cooking
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables

Other behavioral changes should include controlling alcohol use, stopping smoking, keeping diabetes under control, and managing high blood pressure.

Recovery from Stroke

Stroke affects everybody differently. Depending on how serious your stroke is, you may stay in hospital for anything from a few days to few months, and you may stay on the stroke unit or move to a rehabilitation ward. It depends on how much damage the stroke did and how quickly treatment was administered.

Many stroke survivors continue to improve over a long time, sometimes over a number of years. Recovery from stroke involves making changes in the physical, social and, emotional aspects of your life.

You will need to make changes to prevent additional strokes, as well as to facilitate your life-long recovery. The best defense against recurrent stroke is a good offense. Equip yourself with information and tips for preventing another stroke. Be aware of your symptoms and risk factors. Managing your health will help reduce the risk of recurrent stroke.