Knowing the Warning Signs of a Stroke Can Be Life-Saving

Learn the risk factors and symptoms to look out for.

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Decoding F.A.S.T Stroke Symptoms (2:19)

Some of the scariest experiences that can happen to loved ones are often the most unpredictable. Though conditions like heart attack or stroke can seem sudden, there are a few symptoms and factors you can familiarize yourself with to learn the warning signs of strokes, and hopefully get access to preventative care. But what is a stroke exactly? And how do you know if you are at risk for one, or have had one? 

A stroke happens when the blood supply to your brain is interrupted, due to a blood clot or ruptured blood vessels. This blockage prevents your brain from getting the blood and oxygen it needs. It is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention in order to prevent brain damage, coordination problems, loss of motor skills, cognitive issues, or even death. Unfortunately, a person can have a stroke at any age, but it's important to know that most can be prevented if you are aware of the risk factors and symptoms.

Someone dies from a stroke every four minutes in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While that's not as frequent as the number of deaths related to heart disease (more than one American dies every minute), strokes are still the fifth leading cause of death and the leading cause of disability in the U.S., according to the American Stroke Association. Learn what you can do to prevent a stroke, and which symptoms should be followed up with a trip to the doctor.

Who’s at risk for a stroke?

There are a number of risk factors that apply to both men and women that can increase the risk of stroke. These include:

  • Having a family history of stroke.
  • Having high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
  • Being diabetic.
  • Being a smoker.
  • Not exercising or being considered medically overweight.

It's important to note that women can have additional risk factors. These include:

  • Suffering from migraines that include an aura beforehand, something that is more common in women.
  • Taking certain kinds of birth control pills or using hormone replacement therapy.
  • Being pregnant, which changes blood pressure and heart function.

What symptoms should I look out for?

The most common stroke symptoms for both men and women include the sudden appearance of:

  • Numbness or weakness in the face, arms or legs, especially on one side of the body.
  • Confusion, trouble speaking, or trouble understanding.
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination.
  • Severe headache with no apparent cause.

According to the National Stroke Association, women can also have an additional variety of symptoms. These include:

  • Losing consciousness or fainting.
  • General weakness rather than just specific weakness in one part of the body.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Confusion, unresponsiveness, or a feeling of disorientation.
  • Sudden change in behavior.
  • Hallucinating.
  • Feeling agitated.
  • Feeling nauseous or vomiting.
  • Sudden pain somewhere.
  • Seizures.
  • Hiccups.

Looking at that list might seem alarming. After all, hiccups are a fairly normal and routine occurance, right? Maybe you don't have to worry about hiccups if you felt completely fine otherwise, but what if you were also experiencing one-sided weakness and nausea? If you have more than one symptom, or any of the most common symptoms, you should alert your doctor and see if you can come up with a plan to dismiss some of these symptoms.

Why minorities are at a higher risk

According to the American Stroke Association, black Americans are twice as likely to die from stroke than white Americans. Hispanics are also more likely to have a stroke younger, around age 67, as compared to white Americans, who are more likely to suffer a stroke around age 80. Though Asian Americans generally have a lower risk of stroke, they are still 20 percent more likely to experience one in their lifetime, compared to white Americans.

One thing to consider when trying to understand why different minority groups can be more suceptible to strokes is varying environmental factors, like stress levels, access to healthy foods, and access to primary care visits. According to the research text, Understanding Racial and Ethnic Differences in Health in Late Life: A Research Agenda, highlighted by The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), "combining exposure to stressors in five domains (occupation, finances, relationships, racial bias, and violence), blacks, Hispanics, and Asians reported higher levels of stress than whites." The same research also points to how different levels of socioeconomic status can attribute to higher stress levels as well, which increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.

In low-income communities, access to produce and healthy food can be heavily restricted. According to a 2018 article published by NCBI,  fresh fruits and veggies were found to be more expensive in low-income neighborhoods, and neighborhoods with mostly convenience stores simply weren't selling quality produce to begin with. 

The American Stroke Association also points out that Hispanics are less likely to frequent their primary care doctors because of language barriers and access to a vehicle for the appointment. If you're a caregiver, it could be helpful to do research beforehand to make sure there are doctors present who can help address the patient's needs if they are not English speakers. 

If you think someone might be having a stroke, act FAST

According to the American Stroke Association, this acronymn can help you remember what to do if you think you are witnessing someone suffering from a stroke.

  • Face: Ask the person to smile and see if one side of the face droops.
  • Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms and see if one side drifts downwards.
  • Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase and see if their speech is slurred or strange.
  • Time: Any of these signs could indicate a person is having a stroke. Call 911. If a person has other symptoms that make you strongly suspect a stroke, call 911 even if they don’t have problems with the above tasks. Remember, time is of the essence.

What can I do to prevent a stroke?

The best way to prevent a stroke is knowing your risk factors. Smoking, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure are major risk factors for having a stroke. Fortunately, they’re also factors you can control. Talk to you doctor about quitting smoking and get on a regular exercise regimen. Eating well will help you not only lose weight, but improve your blood pressure and cholesterol. These changes can have a big impact on your overall health and literally add years to your life.

Related: 

How to Know If You Might Be Having a Heart Attack

5 Surprising Reasons You Have High Blood Pressure

The Questions Dr. Oz Wants You to Ask