A stroke can happen out of nowhere. You could wake up one morning with sudden weakness, numbness or loss of sensation on one side of your body. You may experience loss of vision, slurred speech, an intense headache and loss of consciousness. These are the symptoms of a stroke, which is the No. 5 cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the U.S., according to the American Stroke Association.
As we age, the risk for stroke increases. The chance of having a stroke just about doubles every 10 years after age 55, says Dr. Ankur Garg, a neurologist at Orlando Neurosurgery. However, they can occur in younger individuals as well.
When a Stroke Strikes
In 2004, at just 39 years old, Secily Wilson, a former News 6 WKMG anchor and double stroke survivor, had her first stroke. While on air for the 5:30 a.m. broadcast, Wilson began slurring her words.
“It was lights, camera, but no action,” she remembers.
Wilson left the news desk and pulled up a previous story she did on the early warning signs of a stroke. It was in that moment that she realized her symptoms matched.
She was in such a panic that she got in her car and drove herself to the hospital, something that Dr. Garg does not recommend. He says if you’re experiencing any symptoms, the best action to take is to call 9-1-1 immediately.
Recovering from a stroke takes patience and persistence. Wilson was determined to gain back her broadcasting voice following her stroke.
“When something like this happens, you have two choices,” she says. “You can either let it consume you or you can fight back.”
After about a month, Wilson finally regained her speech. The only after-effect of both strokes has been short-term memory loss, but not every stroke survivor is as lucky.
“Stroke means death of brain cells, which is always permanent,” Dr. Garg says, noting that it can often lead to long-lasting or permanent disability.
Stroke may cause permanent paralysis or weakness of the arms and legs. It can leave a person wheelchair bound or in need of a cane. Difficulty swallowing is also common, often leading to the need for a special diet.
What Can You Do?
Changing your lifestyle can decrease your risk for stroke. People who recreationally use drugs, smoke, have poor dietary habits or are obese are at a much higher risk of stroke.
“A healthy diet and regular exercise are the first line of defense against stroke as well as heart attack and multiple other medical problems,” Dr. Garg says.
If you’re new to exercising, he recommends taking it easy at first. Brisk walking for 30 minutes at least three times a week is a good place to start then you can increase your exercising gradually with time. Dr. Garg also says the Mediterranean diet, which is heavy in fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts, has been specifically shown to decrease the risk of stroke.
Wilson says she has always lived a healthy lifestyle, but she became more aware of the amount of exercise she does and the food she eats after her stroke. Even though she maintained healthy habits, her second stroke happened 10 years after the first one.
Wilson woke up one morning and noticed her face was slanted. Like the first time, she couldn’t speak. At the hospital, doctors determined she had another stroke.
They later found that Wilson has a small hole in her heart. The blood was not able to pass through the hole, so it was clotting. Today, Wilson is on blood thinners and cholesterol medicine, and she has not had another stroke since. Therefore, it isn’t just lifestyle that can affect your chance of having a stroke.
While lifestyle affects your risk for stroke, Dr. Garg says there are multiple factors at play, including prior stroke, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and family history. One factor that you can’t control is genetics. According to ASA, African Americans and Hispanics have a much higher risk for stroke, and more women than men have strokes each year. This can be related to pregnancy, history of preeclampsia/eclampsia, oral contraceptive use and post-menopausal hormone therapies.
Stroke vs. Heart Attack
Many people think that strokes and heart attacks are the same because they’re usually under the same category. They have some similarities, such as having to do with a loss or a lack of blood flow. In a stroke, brain cells are dying because of loss of blood flow to a part of the brain, while heart attacks happen due to lack of blood flow to a part of the heart. Heart attacks and strokes happen most commonly because of blockage in the arteries, but they have different symptoms.
“While heart attack manifests commonly as sudden, intense chest pain or pain in the left shoulder and shortness of breath, stroke manifests as neurological symptoms,” Dr. Garg says.
Having a heart attack or stroke can be a setback in your life, but Wilson says to not let it consume you. Her advice for stroke survivors or anyone struggling with a medical condition is to do whatever you can to get back up. Choosing to stay positive can make a big difference.
“Do whatever you can to live as normal of a life as you can and not just accept what has happened to you,” Wilson says.
She also says to listen to your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, go to the hospital immediately. Don’t waste time because time loss is brain loss.
It’s important to have regular doctor visits and to stay on top of your health. It could end up saving your life.
How to Identify a Stroke F.A.S.T.
Face Drooping: Does one side of the face droop or is it number? Ask the person to smile.
Arm Weakness: Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
Speech Difficulty: Is speech slurred, are they unable to speak, or are they hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence like, “Is the sky blue.” Is the sentence repeated correctly?
Time to call 9-1-1: If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 9-1-1 and get them to the hospital immediately.
Source: American Stroke Association