Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Savvy Senior: Stroke alert: Risk factors to know and control

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Dear Savvy Senior,

What are the risk factors and symptoms of a stroke? My 74-year-old father had a stroke a few months ago and neither he nor mom had a clue what was happening. What can you tell us?

Caretaking Karen

Dear Karen,

Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States and the No. 1 cause of disability, yet many Americans can’t name a single stroke symptom. Here’s what you should know.

What is a stroke?

Every year, around 750,000 Americans suffer a stroke (see A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that supplies blood to the brain is suddenly blocked by a clot (ischemic stroke) or burst (hemorrhagic stroke), causing brain damage. About 80 percent of strokes are ischemic. But the good news is that knowing and controlling the risk factors can prevent most strokes.

Stroke factors

There are many factors (some you can’t change and some you can) that increase your risk for stroke. They include:

Age: The risk of stroke doubles each decade after age 55.

Gender: Men are more likely to have a stroke, but women are more likely to die of one.

Race: African Americans and Hispanics have a higher risk than those of other races.

Family history: If your parents or siblings have ever suffered a stroke, you’re at twice the risk of having one too.

Previous stroke: If you’ve already had a stroke or a mini-stroke, you have a 25 to 40 percent chance of having another stroke in the next five years.

High blood pressure: Left untreated, high blood pressure (140⁄90 or higher) is a leading cause of stroke. Work with your doctor to keep your blood pressure under control.

Smoking: If you smoke – quit. Smoking doubles the risk of stroke.

High cholesterol: High levels of cholesterol can clog arteries and cause a stroke or heart attack. High cholesterol can usually be controlled with diet, exercise and medication.

Diabetes: The risk of stroke doubles in people with diabetes. There are more than 5 million Americans with type 2 diabetes and don’t know it. Get tested!

Atrial fibrillation: 3 to 5 percent of people over 65 have atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disorder that increases stroke risk. Find out from your doctor if you have it.

Obesity: Being overweight increases your chance of developing high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and diabetes – all of which increase stroke risk.

Alcohol: While one or two drinks a day slightly reduces risk of stroke, excessive drinking (more than three drinks a day) increases risk.


If you’re age 60 or older or have other risk factors, getting screened for vascular diseases is a smart way to help prevent a stroke. Here are some convenient services you should know about.

Legs for Life: A public education national screening program that provides free vascular screenings (throughout September) at hundreds of hospitals and clinics across the country but require an appointment. See to find a screening site near you.

Society for Vascular Surgery: Offers free screenings at around 150 sites nationwide. See or call 800-258-7188.

Life Line Screening: A private company that offers screening tests for $45 at 14,000 sites nationwide. Visit or call 800-697-9721.

Stroke symptoms

Every minute counts when it comes to treating a stroke. Clot-dissolving drugs used to treat ischemic strokes can save lives and greatly reduce disability, if given within three hours after symptoms appear. If you’re having, or see someone else having symptoms of a stroke, call 911 immediately. Symptoms include:

Sudden numbness, weakness, or paralysis of the face, arm, or leg on one side of the body.

Sudden vision problems in one or both eyes, such as dimness, blurring, double vision or loss of vision.

Unexplained dizziness, loss of balance or trouble walking.

Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.

Severe headache with no known cause, possibly accompanied by vomiting.

Savvy notes: Mini-strokes (temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain) fool a lot of people because the symptoms (similar to a full-blown stroke) go away. But recognizing them and seeking medical help is crucial because mini-strokes are strong predictors of a more serious stroke to come. For more stroke information, visit

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of ‘‘The Savvy Senior” books.