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Be aware of very real risk of strokes

Editor’s Note

Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.

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May is National Stroke Awareness Month. According to the American Stroke Association, strokes are the fifth leading cause of death in the United States and a leading cause of disability, and while the risk of having a stroke increases as we age, 80 percent of all strokes can be prevented by making healthy lifestyle choices.

A stroke happens when blood flow in the brain is disrupted. To understand how our behavior affects our chances of having a stroke, it is first important to know that there are three main types of strokes: ischemic strokes, hemorrhagic strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIA), which are commonly referred to as “mini-strokes.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 87 percent of all strokes are ischemic strokes. These occur when blood flow through the brain is suddenly interrupted, usually by a clot or blockage in one of the arteries within the brain. This prevents the blood from getting to those parts of the brain beyond the blockage.

A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when, rather than being blocked, a brain artery leaks blood or completely ruptures, damaging surrounding brain cells by putting them under excess pressure. Conditions within the body that can lead to a hemorrhagic stroke include high blood pressure and aneurysms, bulges in a weakened artery wall which can burst.

Hemorrhagic strokes fall into two categories, intracerebral hemorrhage and subarachnoid hemorrhage. The most common type of hemorrhagic stroke is intracerebral hemorrhagic, which happens when an artery within the brain ruptures and releases blood into the surrounding brain cells. In a subarachnoid hemorrhagic stroke, the location of the burst artery sends blood into the area between the brain and the tissue around it, rather than into the brain itself.

The third main type of stroke is the transient ischemic attack. Similar to an ischemic stroke, blood flow to the brain is blocked during a TIA. However, the blockage only last for a short time – usually no longer than five minutes, according to the American Stroke Association – and blood begins flowing again. The TIA is also known as a warning stroke because, while it may not result in major damage, it is sign that a more serious stroke could happen soon.

As we age, our chances of having a stroke increase. The CDC reports those chances almost double every 10 years after we reach 55. According to the CDC women are more likely than men to suffer a stroke and are more likely to die after having one. Strokes are also more common among blacks, Hispanics and American Indians than among non-Hispanic whites or Asians. Blacks are also at higher risk of dying from a stroke.

A family history of strokes could also mean a greater risk of stroke in one’s own future. Many of the health risks that can contribute to a stroke — such as high blood pressure, heart disease and high cholesterol – can be passed from one generation to the next through are genes. Certain genetic disorders, like sickle cell disease, can also increase a person’s risk for having a stroke.

Although risk factors like age and family history cannot be avoided, making the right choices when it comes to diet and exercise can help moderate those risks. For example, a diet high in fats and cholesterol can contribute to heart disease, leading to plaque or cholesterol build up in the arteries and blocking the flow of blood to the brain. Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, which can cause a stroke when the pressure of the blood flowing through veins and arteries is too great.

Diabetes is another risk factor that can be controlled by eating right and keeping physically active, as is obesity, which can also contribute to both heart disease and diabetes. Research suggests that more younger people are having strokes now than in the past due to an increase in obesity at younger ages. The CDC reports that one in seven strokes now occurs in people between the ages of 15 and 49.

Excess alcohol consumption can also lead to high blood pressure and increased stroke risk. Drinking too much can raise triglyceride levels in the blood. Triglycerides are a type of fat that can cause arteries to harden. The heart and circulatory system can also be damaged by cigarette smoke, as nicotine raises blood pressure and carbon monoxide replaces oxygen in the blood stream. The increased risk of a stroke is just as great for those breathing secondhand smoke as it is for the smoker themselves.

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Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines and familiar surroundings.

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