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What Can I Do to Prevent Stroke?

In an effort to reverse the current rise in disability and death associated with stroke, the NSA has recently issued the following recommendations, established by a consensus panel of nationally renowned stroke experts:

1. Know your blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure is a primary cause of stroke. In fact, according to Dr. Martin, undiagnosed hypertension is perhaps the only risk factor that could explain Laver's stroke, as he was in otherwise perfect health. Some combination of diet, exercise and medication can bring hypertension under control.

2. Find out if you have atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a type of heart rhythm abnormality in which the upper chambers of the heart do not empty completely when the heart beats and pumps blood to the rest of the body. Blood remaining in one place too long tends to stagnate and form clots. Should such a clot escape from the heart, it can travel to the brain and cause a stroke. If you are diagnosed with AF, your doctor may prescribe an anticoagulant, such as Warfarin (Coumadin), or aspirin to prevent clot formation.

Don't smoke3. Smoking doubles the risk of stroke. If you stop smoking, your risk will immediately begin to drop. Within five years, your risk may be the same as that of a nonsmoker.

4. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. One drink a day, such as a glass of wine or beer, may actually lower your risk of stroke (provided there is no medical reason you should avoid alcohol). However, heavy drinking increases stroke risk.

5. Know your cholesterol levels. Reducing high cholesterol lowers stroke risk. Many people can control their cholesterol levels with diet and exercise alone; others may require medication.

6. Take special care if you have diabetes. Diabetes puts you at an increased risk for stroke; by controlling diabetes, you may lower risk of stroke.

7. Exercise daily. As little as 30 minutes a day of any brisk activity can improve your health in many ways and reduce your risk of stroke. Walking is a good exercise for people of all ages. .

8. Maintain a low-sodium (salt), low-fat diet. Like exercise, eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and grains and a moderate amount of protein each day is good for your health and lowers stroke risk.

9. Get checked for circulatory disorders. Strokes can be caused by any number of problems involving the vessels that supply blood to the brain. Circulation disorders--including atherosclerosis sickle cell disease, and severe anemia--are generally highly treatable. Medication or, occasionally, surgery, may be warranted.

10. Know the symptoms of a stroke. These include: sudden weakness or numbness of the face, arm or leg especially on one side of the body; sudden blurred or decreased vision in one or both eyes; difficulty speaking or understanding simple statements; dizziness, loss of balance, or loss of coordination, especially when combined with another stroke symptom; sudden, unexplainable, and intense headache, often described as the "worst headache ever". If such symptoms occur--even if for a brief period--seek treatment, immediately. As Rod Laver's case exemplifies, fast action offers the best chances of a favorable outcome.

Printed with permission from The John Hopkins Medical Letter, January, 1999.

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