The silent killer

Learn to recognize symptoms of stroke
Published on May 01, 2008
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Stroke is the third leading cause of death among Americans and the leading cause of serious, long-term disability. Yet most strokes are preventable, and if symptoms are recognized quickly, immediate treatment can lessen the physical and emotional damage.

Those are the messages the American Stroke Association is sending during May, which has been designated as American Stroke Month.

The statistics reported by the association are alarming: someone in the United States suffers a stroke every 40 seconds, and someone dies of stroke every 3 to 4 minutes. That translates into an average of 780,000 strokes every year, more than 150,000 of which are fatal.

In 2008, stroke will cost the nation an estimated $65.5 billion in direct and indirect costs—up from $62.7 billion in 2007 and $57.9 billion in 2006. The rising financial toll of stroke can also be seen in stroke-related claims paid by the AVMA Group Health and Life Insurance Trust, which increased from just under $837,000 in 2006 to more than $1 million in 2007.

Perhaps the most distressing news is that, despite advances in treatment, the incidence of stroke continues to rise. Researchers estimate that stroke deaths will nearly double in the next 20 years, with the disease expected to kill an estimated 286,000 Americans by 2023.

Someone in the United States suffers a stroke every 40 seconds, and someone dies of stroke every 3 to 4 minutes. That translates into an average of 780,000 strokes every year, more than 150,000 of which are fatal.


Life-saving awareness

Understanding what stroke is and learning to recognize the symptoms can save a stroke victim's life and lessen the long-term impact of the disease.

Stroke does not discriminate by sparing any age, gender, or ethnicity. Twenty-eight percent of people who suffer a stroke are under age 65, including three of every 100,000 people between the ages of one month and 18 years. In fact, stroke occurs in children under one year old at about the same rate as adults over age 75, striking one in every 5,000.

There are two types of stroke. The most common is ischemic stroke, which is caused by blockage of a blood vessel in the brain, usually by a blood clot or fatty deposits on the vessel wall. The second type is hemorrhagic stroke, which is caused by a ruptured blood vessel that prevents normal flow and allows blood to leak into and destroy brain tissue.

Among people 45 to 64 years of age, 8 percent to 12 percent of ischemic strokes and 37 percent to 38 percent of hemorrhagic strokes result in death within 30 days.

Those who survive can suffer from a range of physical and emotional disabilities, including paralysis and difficulty with thinking, understanding, or speaking clearly. Many lose some ability to perform everyday tasks such as dressing, walking, or making something to eat.

The most common stroke symptoms are sudden numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body; sudden confusion or trouble speaking or understanding speech; sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; and sudden trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination.

Quick recognition of symptoms is imperative. Stroke kills two million brain cells per minute, meaning the window of opportunity for the most effective treatment is just three hours from onset.

One of the simplest ways to determine whether someone is having a stroke is to follow the RSVP method:

  • Raise both arms: can the person raise both arms?
  • Smile: can the person smile?
  • Vocalize: can the person communicate?
  • Phone 911: if the person cannot do one of the above, immediately phone 911.

Preventing stroke  

The key to stroke prevention is to understand personal risk factors and take steps to mitigate them.

Although stroke does not discriminate, some groups are at a higher risk. About 46,000 more women than men suffer a stroke each year, and the lifetime risk is greater than one in six after age 55. People with high blood pressure (140/90+) have about twice the risk of stroke as people with blood pressure lower than 120/80.

Regardless of risk factors, everyone should take steps to reduce the likelihood of a stroke. In addition to following a low-fat/low-sodium diet, not smoking, and exercising at least 30 minutes a day, the National Stroke Association recommends the following:

  • Have blood pressure checked at least annually and, if elevated, control it with diet, exercise, and/or medication.
  • Have cholesterol concentrations checked. High cholesterol can usually be controlled with diet and exercise, although some people may require medicine.
  • Be tested for atrial fibrillation. Blood thinners are the most commonly prescribed treatments.
  • Be checked for circulation problems. Fatty deposits caused by atherosclerosis or other diseases can block the carotid and vertebral arteries. Medication is the typical treatment, although surgery is occasionally required.

The AVMA GHLIT insurance program is underwritten by New York Life Insurance Company. For more information or to find a GHLIT agent in the area, call the Trust office at (800) 621-6360.