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Are You at Risk for Stroke?

April 24, 2012

Find Out What Your Stroke "Report Card" Looks Like

Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. It's good advice. But when it comes to your health, it could be life saving, particularly when talking about stroke.

"Ideally I would like to get people thinking about stroke before it happens to them," says Ash Jain, M.D., medical director of the Stroke Program at Washington Hospital. "Stroke is a highly preventable disease, but it is devastating when it happens. I urge everyone in the community to think about how they can prevent stroke."

On Tuesday, May 1, from 6 to 8 p.m., Dr. Jain and the Stroke Program's Clinical Coordinator Doug Van Houten, R.N., will present a free community education seminar focusing on how to prevent stroke by managing other disease processes and incorporating healthy lifestyle changes into daily life.

Stroke Can Happen to You

Unfortunately, stroke is not a case of, "It could never happen to me." In fact, more than 140,000 people die each year from stroke in the United States, according to The Internet Stroke Center. Furthermore, stroke has also long been the leading cause of serious, long-term disability in the United States.

"Most strokes occur in people over the age of 65, but strokes can happen at any age," Dr. Jain says. "I will be discussing other diseases processes - such as diabetes and hypertension - that contribute to increased risk of stroke, as well as how to manage these conditions."

He points out that identifying and controlling these factors could prevent a significant percentage of strokes in the community, seeing as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes - if left uncontrolled - can do significant damage to the body's vascular systems, the network of blood vessels from capillaries to arteries that carry oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to vital organs like the brain.

"Very often people may not realize just how much these factors increase their risk of stroke," Dr. Jain says. "The reality is that they contribute to atherosclerosis, which can cause plaque on the arterial walls. As plaque progresses and causes arterial blockage and decreased blood flow, it leads to cell death; or it can break off and block a smaller artery, which also can lead to cell death."

And this can equate to permanent damage to the affected areas of the brain if a patient isn't treated quickly enough.

Learn How to Prevent It

To prevent stroke, Dr. Jain points out that there are a lot of things people can do, but the first priority is to determine existing risk factors, enabling patients and their doctor to work together on improving them.

"The first step is for patients to make an appointment with their primary care physician to talk about all the risk factors they may have," he says.

Primary care physicians may recommend changes to lifestyle, such as improving diet, incorporating exercise, and quitting smoking, but other factors require medical intervention, according to Dr. Jain.

"For conditions like irregular heartbeat and atherosclerosis, you need to be diagnosed by a physician and treated accordingly in order to manage them properly," he points out.

He reminds community members that stroke often occurs with no advance warning. Other times, warnings like transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) - which can cause a passing numbness and tingling - are not brought to the attention of the doctor because patients don't realize how serious they are.

"Everyone in the family needs to recognize the symptoms of stroke and understand how important it is to seek emergency medical care as soon as possible," he says. "Community members are lucky to have a certified Primary Stroke Center at Washington Hospital, but they need to know how critical it is to seek treatment immediately if they suspect a stroke."

How Does Your Report Card Look?

The Stroke Program's Clinical Coordinator Doug Van Houten, R.N. will look at how we're doing nationally and locally as far as the lifestyle-related risk factors for stroke based on data from the American Heart Association (AHA)'s 2012 Stroke and Heart Attack Report.

"As a country, we're doing some things right and working to make improvements in other areas, but on issues like diabetes and being overweight, we're just going up and up and up, and it's not stopping," he says. "These are some of the key issues I'm looking to address during the class."

"Overall how are we doing as a nation? What does our national report card on the reduction of lifestyle risk factors look like? Well, in some ways it looks good. Cardiovascular disease death rates are down by more than 30 percent and stroke has declined to the fourth leading cause of death from third. That is great - B+."

Van Houten also points out that Alameda County deserves a big A+ for being well below the national average for smoking rates. However, with some areas improving and others staying the same or getting worse, he says it's a good idea to start by looking at a lifestyle area that impacts cholesterol, weight, hypertension, and diabetes.

"In the past, I've said maybe being overweight is the No. 1 issue because that means you're probably not eating right and you're probably hypertensive," he explains. "If you're overweight, you've also probably got cholesterol issues. And if you're overweight you're much, much more likely to have diabetes."

"Clearly if, according to the AHA report, only 21 percent of adults get enough exercise, that's part of it, but I've also got this big thing about fast food. The drink of choice is always a sugary soda. The food is high in fat and high in salt, so it tastes good. And it's inexpensive, making it hard to resist."

During his talk, Van Houten will cover common lifestyle pitfalls - like overindulging in fast food - as well as tips for overcoming them and improving overall health through simple steps.

"There's evidence that says if you get up and walk for 10 minutes after eating, you will reduce your blood sugar pretty drastically," he points out. "If you're having your lunch at work, get up after eating and go for a 10-minute walk. Or at home after dinner, go out for a walk around the block with your spouse. That way, you don't get into a pattern of taking out the cookies and ice cream and sitting on the couch for the rest of the night. Don't get into that temptation."

Learn how to prevent stroke today

To learn more about what you can do to decrease your risk of stroke, make sure to attend next Tuesday's free stroke seminar focusing on prevention. The class will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on May 1 in the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium located at 2500 Mowry Avenue (Washington West) in Fremont.

To register, call Health Connection at (800) 963-7070 or visit www.whhs.com.