Health & Medicine

Life changes can help reduce risk of secondary stroke

According to the Centers for Disease Control, someone in the U.S. suffers from a stroke every 40 seconds, which is approximately 795,000 people each year. Of that number, 185,000 are secondary strokes.

A secondary stroke is any stroke that occurs after the first one, and physicians are working hard to greatly reduce the number of secondary strokes that take place each year.

After a patient experiences his or her first stroke, that patient will most likely be referred to a neurologist for evaluation. It is the neurologist's mission to determine the cause of the stroke. Even if the exact cause of the stroke cannot be found, the neurologist will assess the patient for any risk factors that could have led to the stroke. Some, but not all, risk factors can be modified to reduce that patient's chances of having a secondary stroke.

Examples of common stroke risk factors include smoking, diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, obesity, carotid artery stenosis and atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is a common heart rhythm disturbance that can lead to the formation of blood clots in the heart, which can break off and travel to the brain, resulting in a stroke.

When seeing a neurologist, stroke patients will have tests such as a cholesterol panel, serum glucose, radiologic imaging of the carotid arteries, EKG and echocardiogram. These patients will also be evaluated for lifestyle stroke risk factors.

Once a neurologist identifies risk factors or the cause of the first stroke, recommendations will be made to the patient for prevention of a secondary stroke. Lifestyle changes, including regular exercise, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and cessation of smoking, may be suggested to lower the risk of a secondary stroke.

If a patient is found to have a carotid artery blockage of greater than 70 percent, that patient may be referred to a specialist for consideration of procedures to open the diseased artery. If the patient is found to have atrial fibrillation, he or she may be started on an anticoagulant medication, otherwise known as a blood thinner. Additionally, a class of medications called anti-platelet agents (examples include aspirin, Plavix and Aggrenox), are commonly prescribed by neurologists to reduce the chances of a secondary stroke.

Patients should seek immediate care after having their fist stroke because in many cases, the addition of lifestyle changes and/or medications can help prevent a secondary stroke.