Many were shocked recently when "90210" actor Luke Perry died from a massive stroke at age 52. It was a sad reminder that stroke can happen at any age.
"The risk of a stroke increases with age," explained AMITA Health's Interventional Neuroradiologist and Neurologist Dr. Franklin Marden. "Every decade over the age of 55, the risk of stroke doubles -- but a stroke can happen to anyone at any age, even babies."
Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death, and the leading cause of serious, long-term disability in the United States, Dr. Marden said, adding that May is National Stroke Awareness Month. Each year in the United States, about 795,000 people suffer a stroke -- or one person every 40 seconds. Strokes can happen at any age, including at birth with about 1 in 4,000 live births affected by stroke, according to the National Stroke Association.
Most strokes occur when a blood vessel in the brain becomes blocked (typically because of a blood clot) or bursts (often from very high blood pressure or a brain aneurysm), Dr. Marden said. "Typical symptoms include severe headache (especially if it's the worst headache of your life), confusion, weakness or numbness on one side or one part of the body (like the face or arm), garbled or slurred speech, and trouble seeing," he explained. If a stroke happens during sleep, it might not wake the person up, but they may act very differently from when they went to bed.
Sometimes the symptoms of a stroke quickly disappear as the blood clot dissolves on its own. This "transient ischemic attack," or TIA, can last from a few minutes to an hour or more. TIAs are important warning signs. "The risk for another stroke soon after a TIA is substantial," Dr. Marden said, so early diagnosis and treatment is important to try to prevent a more severe stroke.
Risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, heart disease and obesity. Even minor trauma could be a stroke risk if the right circumstances occur and a small tear develops in an artery. Having a family history of stroke may increase your risk for a stroke.
The good news is that the chance of having a stroke has dramatically fallen over the past two decades, thanks to a greater awareness and improvements in prevention. It is now estimated that up to 80% of strokes may be preventable. Lowering your risk could involve quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, staying physically active, and keeping a watch on blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Dr. Marden also recommends routine doctor visits to help monitor your health for any "silent" conditions.
Recent advances in treatments at the time of a stroke have also had a significant impact on saving lives and minimizing the effects of a stroke. Every minute counts, and Dr. Marden says that when symptoms occur -- even if they disappear -- you should call 911 immediately.