Health & Medicine

High blood pressure is greatest risk factor for stroke

May is National Stroke Awareness Month so it's a good time to review the signs and symptoms of a stroke.

In the United States, approximately 795,000 people will have a stroke annually. And the numbers of stroke are not decreasing, even with advances in medical science.

Part of the reason is due to our aging population. Age is the biggest risk factor for a stroke, but unfortunately not something we can control. However, there are many other risk factors for stroke that we can control.

Probably the greatest risk factor overall is high blood pressure. High blood pressure is not always something that you feel, so it is very important to see your doctor regularly and have your blood pressure checked.

Some people think that as you get older, having a higher blood pressure is normal. That is simply not true. A normal blood pressure is less than 130 over 80. We know that lowering blood pressure has a significant impact on lowering the risk of stroke.

Smoking, high cholesterol and diabetes also increase stroke risk, as do obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. Heart disease is another risk factor.

There have been several public health studies asking participants about their awareness of stroke signs and symptoms. In most cases, fewer than 30 or 40 percent could identify even one warning sign of a stroke.

Some of those warning signs can be:

■ Sudden numbness or weakness affecting one side of the body

■ Slurred speech, trouble forming words or understanding what other people are saying to you

■ Sudden loss of vision in one or both eyes, or sudden double vision

■ Sudden room-spinning vertigo or sudden acute headache

Most people think pain is a symptom of stroke, but unlike heart attacks, most strokes do not hurt.

Many times, when people have sudden weakness or numbness, they think they have slept wrong or have just "overdone it." So they wait for those feelings to disappear. Stroke sufferers cannot afford to wait. For every minute there is loss of blood flow to the brain, about one million brain cells are lost.

Those first minutes and hours are critical. It is important to get to the hospital as soon as possible, and ideally, to one that specializes in stroke care. Hospitals have intravenous, clot-busting drugs that can help re-open blood vessels and restore blood flow to brain arteries.

In comprehensive stroke centers, specialized, state-of-the-art treatments are available. In some cases, a mechanical clot retriever inserted through a catheter breaks up the clot. In others, medications are delivered directly to brain arteries.

While some stroke sufferers experience a degree of disability, the vast majority experience some recovery from it. Rehabilitation is very important for return of function, and the sooner the better.

Doctors previously thought stroke sufferers only had a short time to recover from a stroke. In reality, we now know that recovery continues beyond a year or more, and the more you work on it, the better you get.