Strokes: 5 surprising facts about who’s at risk

Knowing what to do can save a life.

By: Pat Miller . Nadine Aljets .

Little boy named Cruz in hospital bed after stroke surgery
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During three summer months of 2018, emergency department personnel at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center saw 23 patients who were in the midst of a stroke. Unfortunately, the stroke team could help reverse stroke damage in only three of those patients. Intervention was not an option for the other 20 because they didn’t come to the emergency department in time.

“Our biggest problem in treating stroke victims is that the patients don’t come immediately,” said Shannon Pitt, who is the stroke coordinator at Sanford Bemidji. “Patients wait, wait and wait some more, and by the time we see them there often is not much we can do. The damage done each minute someone is having a stroke ages the brain three weeks as a result of the brain cells lost.”

Acting fast can save a life. Learn more surprising facts about stroke.

1. Not all stroke symptoms appear the same

FAST is a simple way to remember the traditional stroke signs to watch for:

  • F = Facial drooping
  • A = Arm weakness
  • S = Speech difficulty
  • T = Time to call 911

However, symptoms can appear in other, less recognizable ways. Signs of stroke also include:

  • Sudden nausea or vomiting that is not caused by illness
  • Brief loss of consciousness like fainting, seizures or coma

If you or someone else experiences these issues, call 911 immediately. With a stroke, time equals brain. The sooner you get treatment, the better your chances are for survival and recovery.

2. Even children can have strokes

While stroke risk increases with age, it can occur at any age. For each decade of life after age 55, your chance of having it more than doubles. However, stroke affects even young children. According to the American Stroke Association, stroke in U.S. children aged 0 to 15 happens in 6.4 per 100,000 children.

For one North Dakota family, that realization occurred when their 5-year-old child suffered a rare and life-threatening stroke.

Cruz Krause went to preschool feeling fine, but just hours later was dizzy, pale and vomiting. His mother, Callie, took him to their local hospital where scans showed potential for it. Cruz was flown via Sanford AirMed to Sanford Medical Center Fargo, North Dakota’s only Joint Commission Advanced Comprehensive Stroke Center where it was determined Cruz had suffered a basilar stroke.

Sanford neurologist Michael Manchak, M.D., said the basilar artery is the only unpaired artery in the brain, and it feeds vital structures in the brainstem.

“These strokes account for 1 to 4% of strokes. They carry an extremely high mortality rate approaching 80 to 90% when they are not intervened upon,” Manchak said.

Sanford Health assembled a team of 20 for a 12-minute procedure.

Cruz spent five days in the hospital after his procedure, and was soon back to his normal and energetic self.

“Thinking that you probably will lose your child to going, ‘Wow — we’re going home with him.’ We do have a little more of a journey to go, but Cruz will do it. He’s a fighter,” Cruz’s parents told WDAY-TV.

3. Smoking can double your stroke risk

There are two main types of strokes: ischemic and hemorrhagic.

“Between 70 and 80% of strokes are ischemic, which is acute loss of blood flow to the brain. Ischemic strokes are generally caused by a blood clot or a chunk of plaque buildup that floats around the body and finds its way to the brain,” Pitt said.

“Hemorrhagic is a bleeding type of stroke where a blood vessel bursts.”

Smoking is one of the many risk factors for stroke that can be changed by quitting. Smoking almost doubles the risk for an ischemic stroke, the most common type, by making blood sticky and more likely to clot, which can block blood flow to the heart and brain.

Smoking also damages cells that line the blood vessels and increases the buildup of plaque, causing thickening and narrowing of blood vessels leading to stroke.

4. Where you live can increase your stroke risk

Did you know there are “stroke belt” states? According to the American Stroke Association, they are more common in the southeastern United States.

Regional differences in lifestyle, race, smoking habits and diet may contribute to this increased risk.

People who smoke, have high blood pressure and high cholesterol are among those with the highest risk of having a stroke. Being overweight, suffering from diabetes and having untreated atrial fibrillation also can be contributing factors.

5. Stroke prevention is possible

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, making the right choices in terms of diet, and exercising regularly will help reduce the chances of experiencing a stroke.

“People should exercise at least 150 minutes each week, and they should think cardiovascular and aerobic,” Pitt said. “A good measurement (of intensity) for an exercise is when you can talk but you can’t sing.”

Eating healthy with a plant-based diet also is important, Pitt said. This means that a majority of your diet should be fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Meat, especially red meat, increases cholesterol. Meanwhile, fruits and vegetables have fiber which sweeps out the cholesterol.

Reducing sodium intake, maintaining a normal weight (under a 25 body mass index), controlling blood sugars to an A1C level under 6.5, quitting smoking and lowering the blood pressure also are important tools people can use to reduce the risk of a stroke.

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