Most of us are so busy going about our lives, we don’t often think of how our brain actually works as the master control of all we do. It’s true. At any given moment, our brains are carefully—often seamlessly—coordinating our every move, thought and emotion. But like any organ in the body, the brain needs a steady supply of oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood.
Stroke happens when a blood vessel in the brain is suddenly blocked or bursts. It’s a leading cause of death and disability among adults. In fact, someone has a stroke every 40 seconds in the U.S.
Experts say the good news is that most strokes—four out of five—could be prevented. Survival is also much more likely these days thanks to advances in medical care and access to more timely treatment.
What is stroke?
A stroke—sometimes called a “brain attack”—occurs when normal blood flow to the brain is cut off. When this happens, the brain isn’t getting the oxygen that it needs, and brain cells can die quickly.
There are two types of stroke: ischemic and hemorrhagic.
Ischemic is the most common, and often stems from:
Hemorrhagic stroke happens when a blood vessel in the brain bursts and bleeds into the brain.
Just like a heart attack can damage the heart, a stroke can injure the brain. The part of the brain that is damaged may not work or be able to control the body as it once did.
You may have heard of “mini-stroke,” also called transient ischemic attack (TIA). These occur when less blood than usual makes it to the brain. They are short-lived and do not result in any permanent damage; however, they can be a warning sign of a more serious stroke.
What makes stroke more likely
Stroke and heart disease share many risk factors. Over time, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, not getting enough exercise, and being overweight, can cause changes in the heart or blood vessels that can lead to stroke and other cardiac events.
Certain conditions, including atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat), heart valve disorders and an enlargement of one of the heart’s chambers can result in clots breaking loose and blocking blood supply to the brain.
Strokes strike quickly—typically without warning. That’s why it’s critical to know the signs of stroke, and act fast.
You might experience sudden:
If you or a loved one have one or more of these symptoms, don’t delay. Call 9-1-1 immediately.
To prevent brain damage and permanent disability, blood flow must be restored quickly. Every second counts. The faster you can get to the hospital, the sooner doctors can help restore blood flow to the brain, usually by giving a medication (tissue plasminogen activator) to dissolve or break up the blood clot. This medicine needs to be given within three hours of the start of a stroke. Other medicines can help prevent a new or future stroke.
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Recovery and rehabilitation
Some strokes are mild, but others can lead to severe brain damage—even premature death. How stroke affects someone will depend on where the stroke occurred and how quickly treatment is given, as well as their age, overall health and other factors.
Stroke can lead to:
If you’ve survived a stroke, there are ways to regain lost function and relearn skills. Rehabilitation can help and may include a combination of physical, occupational and speech therapy. The goal is to give you the best possibly recovery.
Steering clear of stroke—what you can do
If you are at risk for stroke—or have already had one—there are steps you can take to help prevent having one. Try to:
Remember: know the warning signs of a stroke and be prepared to seek medical attention right away.
Talking to your care team
Talk with your health care team about stroke, especially if you already have heart disease. Here are some questions to help get you started:
In addition to resources on CardioSmart.org, you can find out more about stroke and how to prevent it at:
American Stroke Association
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Published: May 2015
Medical Reviewers: Kim A. Eagle, MD, MACC, University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center & Mary Norine Walsh, MD, FACC, St. Vincent Heart Center of Indiana