Knowing that brain cells die every minute, Dr. John R. Baker and his neurointerventional team work as quickly as possible on every stroke patient they treat to restore oxygen to the brain. Advanced imaging and technology enable Dr. Baker to remove blood clots, repair blood vessels in the brain and stop bleeding.
At Bon Secours DePaul Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit, the team operates under a simple, yet important premise: Time is brain.
Although today’s cutting-edge interventional procedures can dramatically reduce the devastating effects of a stroke, it remains the leading cause of disability in the United States. Stroke also ranks as the country’s fifth-leading cause of death.
“Preventing a stroke from happening is so much better than trying to treat it once it’s started,” said Dr. Baker, a neuroendovascular surgeon and medical director of the Bon Secours Neurovascular Center and the Neuroscience ICU.
This is one of the reasons why health authorities nationwide declare the month of May as Stroke Awareness Month. Federal researchers believe that a great majority of primary strokes can be prevented. The key, they say, is knowing your personal risk factors and living a healthy lifestyle.
“Awareness comes first,” said Dr. Baker. “Prevention comes second.”
Many risk factors can’t be controlled. For example, everyone’s risk of stroke increases with age. The chance of having a stroke nearly doubles every 10 years after age 55.
Your risk for having a stroke will also depend on your sex, race or ethnicity and family history. Men face a higher risk of having a stroke compared to women, however more women die from a stroke. Additionally, the risk of having a first stroke is nearly double for blacks compared to whites. Blacks are also more likely to die from stroke than whites.
Pay attention if members of your family have a stroke. Stroke appears to run in some families. The risk may be related to a family history of high blood pressure or diabetes.
To lower your risk, it comes down to understanding your heredity and following the advice of your physician.
Treatable risk factors include:
- High blood pressure. Depending on how high it is, your blood pressure can double or quadruple your risk of stroke if you’re under the age of 80. Staying a healthy weight, limiting salt, eating fruits and vegetables and exercising can all make a difference. If necessary, take any prescribed medication as directed to lower your blood pressure. Make sure to have your blood pressure checked regularly because it’s the only way to know whether it’s too high.
- Cigarette smoking. Smoking causes about a two-fold increase in the risk of ischemic stroke, a brain attack caused by a blocked blood vessel in the brain or neck. Smoking also causes up to a four-fold increase in the risk of hemorrhagic stroke, which is caused by bleeding in the brain or in the spaces surrounding it. Quitting smoking not only lowers your risk for stroke but also reduces your risk of lung disease, heart disease and several cancers.
- Heart disease. When you have common heart disorders such as irregular heartbeat, coronary artery disease and valve defects, blood clots can break loose and block vessels in the brain. Your doctor may prescribe aspirin or recommend surgery to clean out a clogged artery.
- History of stroke. If you’ve had a stroke already, your risk of having another is much greater than someone who’s never had one. Seek help immediately if you have warning signs of a stroke even if they last only a few moments. These brief episodes – called transient ischemic attacks – can indicate a serious condition.
- Diabetes. When you have diabetes, it can damage your body’s blood vessels. If your blood sugar is high at the time of stroke, it can make brain damage more severe and extensive. Treating your diabetes can delay complications that increase your risk of stroke.
- Cholesterol imbalance. Controlling your cholesterol with medication, diet and exercise helps lower your risk for atherosclerosis. If you develop atherosclerosis, your blood vessels become narrow, putting you at risk for stroke and heart attack.
- Physical inactivity and obesity. Carrying a significant amount of excess weight and remaining sedentary are associated with high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. All three put you at greater risk for stroke.
- Heavy alcohol consumption and illicit drug use. Heavy alcohol consumption can lead to an increase in blood pressure. The use of illicit drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, can cause stroke.
- Brain aneurysms or arteriovenous malformations (AVMs). Aneurysms are bulges in an artery that can burst. AVMs are tangles of defective arteries and veins that can rupture within the brain. Procedures can treat both aneurysms and AVMs before they rupture.
Living a healthy lifestyle is based on making healthy choices, every day. Make sure to ask your primary health provider what you should do to lower your risk.
“You can’t choose your family history or how your body naturally processes cholesterol,” Dr. Baker said. “But you can make choices to quit smoking, consistently eat healthy foods and exercise. Prevention makes a difference.”
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.