The specifics on stroke

Each year, 50,000 Canadians suffer from the debilitating effects of stroke. With up to 16,000 dying from stroke, it has become the fourth leading cause of fatality in Canada. Whether the person is a parent, relative or friend, it’s an event that touches the lives of many Canadians.

Yet, according to a recent survey, very few of us are even aware of what a stroke is, and only a small percentage of us know the lifestyle and medical options that are available to help prevent one.

These were some of the findings of the National Stroke Survey , a recent study conducted to examine the level of knowledge and perception Canadians have of stroke and of its consequences. The survey clearly shows that we’re woefully undereducated when it comes to stroke: 50 per cent of Canadians over the age of 35 failed to correctly describe what a stroke is; less than half could identify a single stroke symptom; and an astounding 80 per cent could not identify high blood pressure as the leading modifiable risk factor for stroke.

The study should act as a wake-up call for all Canadians, especially those of us over 50 who are at increased risk for stroke. To protect our health, w not begin to increase our knowledge of stroke and learn to make the lifestyle choices that may lessen our chances of suffering one? And what better time to start than now in June — National Stroke Awareness month?

Stroke: What is it?
A stroke, also known as a brain attack, occurs when a blood vessel bursts or is blocked, causing a sudden interruption of blood flow to the brain. This event starves the brain of much-needed oxygen and can sometimes cause brain tissue to die. As a result, part of the body controlled by the damaged section of the brain no longer functions properly.

There are two types of stroke. The most common is an ischemic stroke, which results from a blocked blood vessel interrupting the flow of blood to the brain; this type accounts for about 80 per cent of cases. The second type is hemorrhagic stroke, which results from a burst artery causing bleeding into the brain.

Though stroke isn’t always fatal, it often leaves survivors with a host of serious and chronic health challenges including paralysis, problems in thinking clearly and memory or speech loss. Besides the obvious physical issues, stroke survivors often have to deal with the emotional burden of living with chronic disabilities and the financial issues that occur if the patient is no longer able to work. Just as importantly, families must begin devising immediate and long-term plans on how to care for the patient.

Hypertension: A key factor
“Stroke can have a major impact on our lives and, as these survey results point out, there’s a glaring need for Canadians to learn more about stroke and how to prevent it,” stresses Dr. Ellen Burgess, Director of the Hypertension Research Clinic at the University of Calgary. “A good start is to learn the warning signs of stroke and take control of your risk factors — especially hypertension.”

Indeed, the National Stroke Survey found that only one in five Canadians could correctly identify hypertension as the major modifiable risk factor for stroke. Though a stroke can happen to anyone, making sure your blood pressure is within the normal range lowers one of the risks.

Blood pressure is a measure of the force the blood exerts against the vessel walls. You are given two numbers when you have your blood pressure taken, the first or higher for when the heart is pumping the blood into the body (systolic) and the second or lower for when the heart is resting (diastolic).

Normal blood pressure is the systolic pressure being below 120 and the diastolic below 80 (120/80 mm Hg). Your blood pressure will change throughout the day depending on your activities. For an adult, the diagnosis of high blood pressure is made when the average of two or more separate blood pressure readings is above 140/90 mm Hg.

Left untreated, high blood pressure can eventually damage the blood vessels throughout the body leading to a number of very serious problems, including heart disease, kidney problems, eye problems and stroke.

That’s why Dr. Burgess feels it’s so important for patients to take seriously the need to control their blood pressure. “By intervening early with lifestyle modifications and medical treatments, we aim to control a patient’s blood pressure and lessen the chance of a stroke,” she says.

Don’t let hypertension go untreated
Perhaps the primary obstacle physicians face is convincing patients with hypertension – who more often than not feel completely normal – that they need to get their blood pressure under control.

“Because hypertension usually has no symptoms, it’s hard to persuade patients to make the lifestyle changes and take the medications that will control it,” says Dr. Burgess. “Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a major event like a stroke before patients realize the importance of controlling blood pressure.”

“Doctors take a systematic approach to treating hypertension. Some patients may need only lifestyle changes – increasing their physical activity and exercise, persuading them to limit their alcohol intake or altering their diet – in order to control their blood pressure,” says Dr. Burgess. “For others, we need to use a combination of lifestyle modification and anti-hypertensive medications to lower their blood pressure and prevent strokes and other problems.”

With the growing arsenal of antihypertensive medications now available – angiotension II receptor antagonists (AIIAs) also known as angiotensin-receptor blockers (ARBs), ACE inhibitors, calcium channel blockers, beta blockers, alpha blockers and diuretics – Dr. Burgess feels we can effectively win the battle against hypertension.

It’s up to you
High blood pressure can be treated, but the success of any treatment plan is founded on how closely we listen and adhere to our doctors’ advice. As we age our blood pressure can increase, so we should get it checked on a regular basis. Moreover, we must follow our doctors’ recommendations concerning lifestyle changes and take the medications as prescribed.

Increasing our knowledge of stroke should help us reduce our chances of suffering one down the road. By learning all we can about stroke and its risk factors, we can enhance our own health and help lessen the toll this disease exacts on Canadians each year.

Stroke risk factors you can change
The following will help you reduce your chances of having a stroke:
• Control your blood pressure. Follow your doctor’s directions.
• Stop smoking. Within one year of quitting, your risk is cut in half.
• Control your blood cholesterol levels.
• Get active.
• Moderate your alcohol intake – no more than two per day.
• Maintain a healthy weight.
• Make healthy food choices. Choose lower-fat foods more often and eat five to 10 servings of fruit and vegetables every day. Use salt sparingly.
• If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugars under control.

Recognize the signs of stroke
People need to get to the hospital immediately following the onset of any of these stroke symptoms:
• Confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
• Difficulty walking, dizziness, loss of balance or co-ordination.
• Trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
• Weakness, numbness or tingling in the face, arm or leg (especially on one side).
• Severe headache with no known cause.

This Special Sponsored Feature was produced by the editors of 50Plus magazine in co-operation with Merck Frosst.