Stroke is the second most-common cause of death worldwide, and 1 in 6 of us will experience stroke in our lifetime. Unfortunately, new research from the American Heart Association shows that stroke deaths are on the rise in certain counties around the country, including here in St. Johns County. The data shows that that stroke deaths among individuals over 65 in St. Johns County increased 19& from 2010 to 2016. There was also a 12% increase among middle-aged individuals, age 35 to 65. These numbers show a tremendous need for stroke prevention and care.
A stroke happens when a blood vessel that supplies blood to the brain is blocked or ruptures. What most people don’t realize is that heart health has a lot to do with your risk of suffering from a stroke. About 3 out of 4 people who have a stroke for the first time have high blood pressure and atrial fibrillation — an irregular heart rhythm — is present in about 20% of strokes.
The good news is that you can defend against stroke by promoting a heart-healthy lifestyle. With February serving as American Heart Month, now is the perfect time to learn how to promote your own heart health and lower your risk of stroke.
Link between heart health and stroke
Heart disease and stroke are closely tied together, because the brain needs oxygen-rich blood pumped from the heart to function properly. A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is suddenly interrupted. This can be caused by a blood clot creating a blockage or a blood vessel rupturing. Risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking and diabetes. However, one of the leading causes of stroke people may not know about is atrial fibrillation, or AFib.
AFib is the most common heart arrhythmia and increases your stroke risk by five times. AFib is such a potent risk factor because when the upper chambers of the heart, or atria, do not contract properly, blood pools in a cavity known as the left atrial appendage. The pooled blood can form a clot that travels to your brain’s arteries, interrupting blood flow and leading to a stroke.
How to reduce a stroke risk
To reduce the risk of a stroke, the best defense is a good defense. First, know your risk factors. A stroke can occur at any age, but it’s more common in those 65 and older. In addition to high blood pressure and AFib, diabetes can also increase your risk. There are many effective medications to treat these conditions which can reduce the risk of stroke, so work with your doctor to ensure you’re on the right treatment plan for you.
The vast majority of strokes can be prevented with lifestyle changes. Your number one goal should be to maintain a healthy blood pressure. You can lower your blood pressure by eating a heart-healthy diet, avoiding salt, sugar and high-cholesterol foods. Get at least 30 minutes of activity a day, quit smoking, and if you drink, do it in moderation. If you’re over weight, losing as little as 10 pounds can have a real impact on your stroke risk.
What to do if you have a stroke
It cannot be overemphasized — know the signs of stroke. Nearly 800,000 Americans experience a stroke every year, and roughly 1 in 4 of these cases are second, or recurrent stroke. The important acronym to remember for identifying a stroke is F.A.S.T. That stands for face drooping, arm weaknesses, speech difficulty, time to call 911.
It’s common to mistake or minimize signs of stroke, but don’t delay treatment. For example, if your arm is suddenly numb or weak, and it doesn’t go away in a few minutes, don’t assume it just fell asleep. Call 911.
Stroke is preventable, treatable and beatable. Through small, easy changes, you can start reducing your risk right now.
Dr. Anthony Magnano is a Ponte Vedra resident and cardiologist at St. Vincent’s Medical Center Riverside. For more information on Dr. Magnano and his specialty treating Atrial fibrillation, visit Jaxhealth.com/services/afib.
This column was written for and published in the Ponte Vedra Recorder and is available on page 19.