According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke every year, and around 610,000 are first strokes.
In 2019, stroke was the second leading cause of mortality globally, accounting for 11% of deaths.
There are three main types of stroke. The first and most common, accounting for 87% of cases, is an ischemic stroke. It occurs when blood flow through the artery that supplies oxygen to the brain becomes blocked.
The second is a hemorrhagic stroke, caused by a rupture in an artery in the brain, which in turn damages surrounding tissues.
The third type of stroke is a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which is sometimes called a “ministroke.” It happens when blood flow is temporarily blocked to the brain, usually for no more than 5 minutes.
While stroke is very common, it is often misunderstood. To help us dispel myths on the topic and improve our understanding, we got in touch with Dr. Rafael Alexander Ortiz, chief of Neuro-Endovascular Surgery and Interventional Neuro-Radiology at Lenox Hill Hospital.
Stroke is a problem of the heart
Although stroke risk is linked to cardiovascular risk factors, strokes happen in the brain, not the heart.
“Some people think that stroke is a problem of the heart,” Dr. Ortiz told MNT. “That is incorrect. A stroke is a problem of the brain, caused by the blockage or rupture of arteries or veins in the brain, and not the heart.”
Some people confuse stroke with a heart attack, which is caused by a blockage in blood flow to the heart, and not the brain.
Stroke is not preventable
“The most common risk factors [for stroke] include hypertension, smoking, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, trauma to the head or neck, and cardiac arrhythmias,” said Dr. Ortiz.
Many of these risk factors can be modified by lifestyle. Exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet can reduce risk factors such as hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes.
Other risk factors include alcohol consumption and stress. Working to reduce or remove these lifestyle factors may also reduce a person’s risk of stroke.
Stroke does not run in families
Single-gene disorders such as sickle cell disease increase a person’s risk for stroke.
Genetic factors including a higher risk for high blood pressure and other cardiovascular risk factors may also indirectly increase stroke risk.
As families are likely to share environments and lifestyles, unhealthy lifestyle factors are likely to increase stroke risk among family members, especially when coupled with genetic risk factors.
Stroke symptoms are hard to recognize
The most common symptoms for stroke form the acronym “F.A.S.T.“:
- F: face dropping, when one side of the face becomes numb and produces an uneven “smile”
- A: arm weakness, when one arm becomes weak or numb and, when raised, drifts slowly downward
- S: speech difficulty, or slurred speech
- T: time to call 911
Other symptoms of stroke include:
- numbness or weakness in the face, arm, leg, or one side of the body
- confusion and trouble speaking or understanding speech
- difficulty seeing in one or both eyes
- difficulty walking, including dizziness, loss of balance and coordination
- severe headaches without a known cause
Stroke cannot be treated
“There is an incorrect belief that strokes are irreversible and can’t be treated,” explained Dr. Ortiz.
“Emergency treatment of a stroke with injection of a clot busting drug, minimally invasive mechanical thrombectomy for clot removal, or surgery can reverse the symptoms of a stroke in many patients, especially if they arrive to the hospital early enough for the therapy (within minutes or hours since the onset of the symptoms),” he noted.
“The longer the symptoms last, the lower the likelihood of a good outcome. Therefore, it is critical that at the onset of stroke symptoms — ie. trouble speaking, double vision, paralysis or numbness, etc — an ambulance should be called (911) for transport to the nearest hospital,” he continued.
Research also shows that those who arrive within 3 hours of first experiencing symptoms typically have less disability 3 months afterward than those who arrived later.