Understanding Stroke

Prevention is the best cure for stroke

May is National Stroke Awareness Month

When blood flow to a part of your brain is stopped, you can have a stroke. Without oxygen and nutrients from the blood, brain cells die quickly. A stroke can damage your brain. It can even kill you. According to The National Stroke Association, stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S.

What happens

Director of Clinical Research, Dr. Robert Benton explains how a stroke event is similar to a heart attack. “Essentially for both of them you have an instance where you’re losing blood flow to a part of the brain or the heart. That is the common finding in both of them. In the heart, usually, this is caused by a cholesterol plaque that has become inflamed, ruptures because you are smoking, or because you have high blood pressure, and there’s a blood clot that forms and blocks blood flow to the heart. When the heart muscle doesn’t get blood, it dies. The brain is similar in that you can have plaque in your brain but the brain is also susceptible to other findings, that would be emboli that fly either from your neck, clotting breaking off from the arteries or the aorta, or one of the common causes of stroke called, atrial fibrillation (AFib).”

Atrial fibrillation, also called AFib or AF, is a common kind of irregular heartbeat that often rapid heart rate that commonly causes poor blood flow. It is quite common in the United States with more the 200,000 cases reported every year. At least 2.7 million Americans are living with AFib.

Many people with AFib are unaware of the five-times greater risk of stroke as a result of having AFib. The average person with atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is 5 times more likely to suffer a stroke than someone with a regular heartbeat. People with untreated atrial fibrillation may be at greater risk for stroke than people with normal heart rhythms because blood does not flow through the atria regularly, blood clots may form in the heart. If a blood clot escapes from the heart, it can travel through the bloodstream to the brain and cause a stroke.

There are two main kinds of stroke

One is called an ischemic stroke. This can happen when a sticky, fatty material called “plaque” builds up in a blood vessel in your brain. Plaque slows your blood flow. It may cause your blood to clot. This can stop the flow of blood completely. This kind of stroke can also happen when a clot travels to your brain from another part of your body, even if you don’t have plaque in your vessels.

The other kind of stroke is called a hemorrhagic stroke. It happens when a blood vessel leaks into your brain, or into the space around your brain. Hemorrhagic strokes are less common, in fact only 15 percent of all strokes are hemorrhagic, but they are responsible for about 40 percent of all stroke deaths.

Causes of stroke

There are three main areas of stroke risk factors: lifestyle, medical, and uncontrollable. Dr. Benton advises that we work with our doctor to identify our personal risk factors for stroke as we would with heart disease. “Heart attack and stroke can have very similar risk factors that lead to them. Smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, a sedentary lifestyle… all of those things can contribute to your risk.” Tobacco use and smoking double the risk of stroke when compared to a nonsmoker. Smoking increases clot formation, thickens blood, and increases the amount of plaque buildup in the arteries. “People can have a genetic pre-disposition to stroke: high blood pressure, arrhythmia, cholesterol levels, these things can be genetically programmed. Then you do yourself no big favor by smoking cigarettes, eating a poor diet, not exercising where you can compound your genetic disposition for stroke with poor or bad lifestyle choices. Those two factors really work together,” pointed out Benton.

Prevention is the best cure for stroke

The good news is, 80% of strokes can be prevented. “Strokes are as preventable as a heart attack and they are actually quite similar,” states Mary Ellen King, Nurse Practitioner at Capital Cardiology Associates. “With heart attacks people know eat a healthy diet, manage cholesterol, exercise and a stroke is the same thing.” Ultimately, regular visits with your healthcare provider will assess and monitor your risk for stroke.
Most importantly if you are over the age of 60 and haven’t been checked for AFib, see your doctor. “Most people with AF don’t feel it. We find it on an EKG. Or a pacemaker, heart monitor, or they are wearing their FitBit or Apple Watch, whatever it is, they notice their heart rate is jumping all over the place and it’s faster than what it used to be.” Early detection of stroke is the biggest element in prevention. “The time piece of identifying stroke is so important because the longer that part of the brain goes without blood and oxygen supply, the worse the outcome is. Unfortunately, people live through strokes but they can be very debilitating and life altering,” explained King.
May is National Stroke Awareness Month. Capital Cardiology Associates proudly supports the American Stroke Association and urges all area residents to see your doctor to identify your stroke risk factors and assess your prevention plan.
Written by: Michael Arce